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Illegal Immigrants Charged in DWI Cases Test Judicial System

Posted April 18, 2008

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— Seven-year-old Marcus Lassiter won't see his eighth birthday. George Smith was on his morning commute to Duke University but never made it to work. Betty Coates might struggle with daily tasks for the rest of her life.

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell sees a pattern among the cases of  these victims of drunken driving: Each accused driver was in the United States illegally.

Bizzell pointed to Hipolito Hernandez, an illegal immigrant who faces second-degree murder charges in the hit-and-run that killed Marcus last Sunday.

"This case here is a prime example of the justice system letting the people down," Bizzell said.

Nearly 300 illegal immigrants were convicted on driving-while-impaired charges and placed in North Carolina prisons in 2007.

Hispanics also account for 18 percent of drunken-driving arrests, while making up less than 7 percent of the state’s population, according to a study from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center aired in WRAL's documentary "Focal Point: Crossing the Line."

The study also showed that Hispanics involved in car crashes were 2.5 times more likely to be drunk than white drivers and three times more likely to be drunk than black drivers.

In the three cases listed above, each of the accused drunken drivers had extensive contact with the judicial system – but had managed to elude the immigration system until these incidents.

Hernandez, who originally gave an alias to police who arrested him Monday, had been charged with DWI four times. Those cases were either pending, dismissed on technicalities or reduced.

WRAL uncovered no evidence that immigration authorities ever detained Hernandez during those times in court.

"He (Hernandez) shouldn't be here to start with. But he is," Bizzell said. "He's violating the law. He's driving drunk. He's killing kids." Hernandez stands accused of murder in the case but has not been convicted of any charges.

Eblin Fabiel Ocampo Cruz, 22, was convicted in the wreck on Interstate 540 that injured Betty Coates on Oct. 25, 2007. An illegal immigrant, Cruz was charged with a DWI in 2006 and had been in court six times that year.

Ricardo Contreras-de la Torre had been deported from the U.S. twice before he plead guilty to DWI in the motor-vehicle death of 54-year-old George Alwyn Smith on June 4, 2007.

A new law, though, has begun changing the judicial process for those suspected of being illegal immigrants. When suspects are fingerprinted and processed in jail, their information is often cross-referenced with immigration records.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a detainer on Hernandez. Cruz and Contreras-de la Torre will be deported when they finish their prison sentences – both set to no more than three years, thanks to plea deals.

Latino advocacy groups often urge the public to step back from the emotion over immigration and focus on the individual crimes.

Advocates admit that drunk driving is a problem within the Hispanic community and have aired public-service ads to combat the problem.

Drunk driving is also the No. 1 killer of young Hispanic men, according to the UNC study.

Bizzell said the tragedy is that deaths such as Marcus' and debilitating injuries such as Coates' are preventable.

"This isn't about race. This isn't about Mexico versus the United States," Bizzell said. "It's about a drunk Mexican that's illegal, driving drunk, no operator's license, stolen vehicle, killing a little 7-year-old boy."


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  • nursevb8 Apr 21, 2008

    Hernandez has been accused but not convicted? Why? This was over a week ago. It's obvious the judges aren't working real hard to put illegals away. This man murdered a 7 y/o boy! The key should have already been thrown away. Cruz and Contreras-de la Torre will be deported when they finish their prison sentences – both set to no more than three years, thanks to plea deals. I'd like to know what kind of plea deal they made. Did they promise not to come back to the US once they were deported? And you believe this? Maybe WRAL needs to send all the comments regarding illegals to our politicians and show them WE MEAN BUSINESS!!! Do something about this growing problem!

  • beachboater Apr 21, 2008

    It's a problem that the time has come to deal with.

  • moncha2003 Apr 21, 2008

    i agree dominican nc... but i think there is a double standard here... maybe 2 or 3 weeks ago a hispanic man and his son were in an accident and were killed by a drunk driver who was an american... i think it was on the news for 2 days and nothing else was said about it.. now i am not saying that one life or race is more important then the other but there are family members who lost a father and a child and i think that their loved ones deserve the same amount of respect.

  • atozca Apr 21, 2008

    This has such an easy fix. Deport all of the illegal aliens and you take care of the problem.

    It's time that our government is more concerned about protecting it's citizens instead of being politically correct in the treatment of illegal aliens.

    ditto, we have done it twice before and we can do it again!

  • clover1019 Apr 21, 2008

    I think we should build a jail for them on antarctica...with no heat they have to run on treadmills to run a heater har har har build that fence into mexico....built it down to the depths of fossils and as high as the clouds float! Oh one more thing....can we get the statue of liberty to cross her arms? (no im not being scarcastic either)

  • DominicanNC Apr 21, 2008

    I feel extremely bad for all the drunk driving families and victims, I simply wish that no matter what is your legal status in this country, drunk driving should be a lot tougher, specially treated as a homicide if you actually kill someone. Lets just hope and pray this happen. This may discourage those who think about driving drunk, but then again some idiots don't think and do it anyways.

  • VT1994Hokie Apr 21, 2008

    TO: tiredofgov'twaste. I just read your comment regarding: Illegal Immigrants in DWI. Great information. I would like for you to send me the site in which you found this information to my golo address. I would like to send this to my friends.

    This is the best research that I have read of late. Please respond.

  • gthornton63 Apr 21, 2008

    All I can say about the two illegal mexicans is while they are serving their time in jail for the DWI charges,(Plea Deal) big deal for 3 years, they should have to serve at least 10 years, and have hard labor 6 days a week while locked up. Hard labor should consist of breaking rocks, cleaning highways and hard construction labor, starting at 6:00 am in the morning and lasting until 8:00 pm at night, with a 15 minute break in the morning, a 1/2 hour for lunch, and a break in the afternoon.
    The illegal mexicans should also have to pay the families of their victims for the pain and suffering caused by their actions.

  • GroupOfPricklyPears Apr 21, 2008

    Thanks for the info - tiredofgovwaste poster.

    Good to FINALLY hear an elected official like Sheriff Bizzell standing up for us - we, the LEGAL, tax paying citizens of North Carolina. I hope our legislators will tighten up sentencing guidelines. Repeat offenders? - NO DEALS.

  • MrQuestions Apr 21, 2008

    This is just one aspect of a huge problem... Very little cross referancing of ANY kind is done. Not just with immigration but between federal agencies and other states. Under funding law enforcement for years is really biting us in the backside... who benefits? Illegals, sex offenders, tax evaders, etc