The death of Nassau County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Oliver was a gut-wrenching loss for local law enforcement. It also shined a spotlight on a practice few knew about.
Oliver died while chasing a suspect into traffic. But it wasn’t his suspect. He’d been asked to act as backup for a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent stopping a truck full of Hispanic-looking men.
“They are hunting people,” complains one Fernandina Beach businesswoman. “They stop [people] at Winn-Dixie, they stop at the Gate gas stations and they are hunting people.”
The Central American-born businesswoman is a naturalized U.S citizen, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. She describes a climate of fear in Fernandina Beach, due to what she calls a pattern of enforcement by Customs and Border Patrol agents. She believes Oliver was a casualty of a new kind of border war.
“If not for them, none of this would be happening … That officer that went down probably would be alive at this time.”
Susan Pai, a former prosecutor and an immigration attorney, has been involved in more than 20 cases of what she calls questionable stops by Border Patrol agents in Nassau County. “It’s to the point that if you’re Latino in Fernandina Beach, you will be stopped for ‘walking while Latino’ or ‘biking while Hispanic.’”
That same allegation surfaced in two 2012 affidavits. Witnesses allege a Border Patrol agent was “hunting Mexicans,” stopping men on passing bicycles and asking for identification. A picture taken by one of the witnesses shows the agent straddling the front wheel of a man’s bike. A witnesses who confronted the agent says he “responded by demanding to know where I was from and demanding my ‘papers.’”
U.S. Border Patrol Division Chief Todd Bryant says the agency does not profile. “Customs and Border Protection strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion.”
Sheriff Bill Leeper says his agency shares that view. “Our policy is we don’t profile people.”
But Leeper acknowledges his deputies will notify border agents with suspicions based on little more than appearance. “From time to time come across an individual ... someone who really looks like they should not have been in our country to begin with, and we’ll call Border Patrol to come take a look at them.”
Border agents can’t detain someone based on mere suspicion that are here illegally. The standard for detention is reasonable suspicion, based on identifiable cues. But in the case of the bicycle stops, the agent said he wasn’t formally detaining them. He was just engaging them in “casual conversation.”
Pai says that claim “defies logic” considering the agent was blocking the cyclist’s path. First Coast News Crime Analyst Mark Baughman, who worked drug interdiction cases as a DEA agent, says body language matters. “If you’re actually getting in front of somebody and impeding their progress where they’re not free to move, that becomes problematic.”
“Most people in that dialogue, or at least on the receiving end of that, don’t feel they have the right to go anyway,” Baughman adds. “They are going to sit there and answer those questions.”
That phrase -- “casual conversation” – also surfaced in the November incident. The criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court says an agent approached a vehicle at the Nassau County Gate Gas Station, and engaged the driver in casual conversation. One of several vehicle occupants -- Francisco Portillo-Fuentes -- fled. Two Nassau officers gave chase, and Oliver was hit by an SUV and killed.
Sheriff Leeper acknowledges his deputies assist Border Patrol when asked, and says those requests have seen an uptick. “We see a little bit more nowadays,” he says. Records obtained by First Coast News show that federal agents called on Nassau deputies for backup 4 times in the past year. That may not seem like much, but Leeper says there are also instances where they help and no report is written.
“There a possibility of that. We do things all day long without making reports, because no reason to.”
Pai worries that getting deputies involved criminalizes what is essentially an administrative matter. Being in the U.S. without documents is a civil offense – not a criminal one. “They do not pose an imminent danger to the officer or to the public, and they certainly don’t justify something as risky as a foot pursuit.”
That was not the case with Portillo-Fuentes, who had entered the U.S. twice previously, and faced criminal charges. But the deputy would not have known his status when he gave chase, Bachman notes. “The deputy doesn’t know that at the time, so they naturally what they’re trained to do which is enforce the law and pursue that.”
That, Pai says, is what makes Oliver’s death particularly tragic. “He should never have taken that level of risk to pursue that kind of person. He should not have lost his life because he never should have risked his life.”