A Continental Ranch resident who was almost killed by an alleged drunken driver claims the Marana Police Department let his assailant get away because the driver was an undocumented immigrant and Marana did not want to assume the hospital costs it would incur if police arrested the injured man.
To varying degrees, Marana officials agree with that assessment.
"It's a cost-effective thing," Marana police spokesman Sgt. Richard Vidaurri said, after consulting with MPD commanders on the department's policy.
Marana police say that as a matter of course, they do not arrest injured illegal border-crossers until after they have been released from the hospital because they don't want the department charged for the immigrant's treatment.
And although the suspected drunken driver may have returned to Mexico, Marana police say they are now actively trying to arrest the man they released after his vehicle slammed into the rear of Larry Good's car March 29.
"It's just outrageous," said Good, who remains in a back brace and unable to work a month and a half after the collision. "It's a double standard. As a citizen of the United States, if I got drunk and almost killed someone, I would be arrested, most likely sued, and would probably lose my house. But because this guy was an illegal alien, they're telling me he can almost destroy my life and not face any consequences, that he can just be released with a wink and a nod and impunity because Marana doesn't want to spend money to make an arrest."
Law enforcement agencies, including the United States Border Patrol, frequently wait until after injured and uninsured undocumented immigrants are released from the hospital before making an arrest, said Katie Reily, a spokesperson for University Medical Center.
The cost of the patient's treatment is usually absorbed by the hospitals, which are legally mandated to provide emergency care despite a person's ability to pay.
Representatives from the Tucson and South Tucson police departments also said the practice was common, but their agencies generally place guards to watch the patient or make arrangements with the hospital to be notified before a suspect is released.
Marana Town Prosecutor Mark Willimann said the results of a blood alcohol test were needed for an arrest, and he believes the driver's citizenship played only "a minor role if any" in the officers' decision not to make an arrest immediately.
Despite the initial police report indicating police believed the immigrant was drunk, Willimann said officers told him they did not have probable cause to make an arrest.
The results of blood taken and tested from the immigrant after the accident and which MPD received last week indicates the driver had a blood-alcohol level of .143 percent - substantially higher than the state's limit of .08 percent, Willimann said.
The month and a half delay in getting the test results back was due to a backlog of cases at the state's crime laboratory. Marana rarely uses a mobile "intoxilyzer" breath testing machine that gives an immediate indication of intoxication because results from the machines have been questioned in court, Willimann said.
Good, 44, said he sustained injuries that included internal bleeding, a lacerated spleen, broken ribs and four broken vertebrae after his 1985 Toyota was rear-ended by a 1991 Oldsmobile driven by Rafael Rojas-Leon on the westbound Interstate 10 frontage road at Orange Grove Road.
"It was about 1:30 in the afternoon and I was stopped waiting for the traffic light to change and the next thing I knew I woke up in the helicopter that was transporting me to the hospital," Good said.
Police estimate Rojas-Leon was traveling at about 45 miles-per-hour when he crashed into Good's car. The impact totaled both vehicles.
Good said he spent a week in University Medical Center, where he said he incurred more than $30,000 in medical bills.
"I'm at a point where we're looking at collecting food stamps and are trying to get help from Pima County's crime victim assistance program," said Good, who moved to Continental Ranch with his wife Cathi and their two daughters from upstate New York just three weeks before the crash.
Rojas-Leon, 30, was taken by ambulance to Tucson Medical Center, although neither police nor a hospital spokesperson were sure of the extent of his injuries or when he was released.
According to Marana police reports, Rojas-Leon told police he lived at an address in Eloy, a small farming community in Pinal County located about 25 miles north of Marana.
Although he was able to show police an Arizona driver's license after the wreck, Willimann said the license was suspended and Rojas-Leon is believed to have been in the country illegally.
"I empathize with Mr. Good emphatically," Willimann said. "I think that on a lot of levels, Mr. Good is a victim of circumstance. This situation was a bad set of circumstances and a bad set of facts."
Willimann said he stands by the MPD officers decision not to arrest Rojas-Leon, although he wishes they had called him at the time of the crash for advice.
"I have to go with their experience as law enforcement officers. I'm not going say they didn't do the right thing. All I would say to them is that they have a sworn duty to uphold the Constitution and the law. If they felt at the time they didn't have probable cause to make an arrest, who am I to tell them that they did," Willimann said.
The MPD patrol officers who responded to the crash, Jorge Pulis and Asher Arnold, could not be reached for comment. Marana Police Chief David R. Smith forbids all MPD officers except designated public information officers from speaking to the media.
Vidaurri, who was reluctant to discuss specific matters related to Good's accident because the case was still being investigated, said the practice of not arresting injured illegal immigrants is a mater of policy for MPD.
"When we have someone who is undocumented and they are transported to the hospital we're not going to arrest them right then and there because we'll be charged with the medical bills," Vidaurri said. "A lot of it is simply because of the economics. If we started charging people while they are still in the hospital, we would be running up hospital bills big time and the powers that be would be very unhappy about that. We have to look at it as a cost effective thing. We're not entirely ignoring the issue, we just don't want to incur those bills."
Larry Good, who was interviewing for a job in sales and service with a landscaping company before the wreck, and Cathi Good, who works at a bank in Casas Adobes, said they don't believe a price should be placed on enforcing the law.
"If you do that, where do you draw the line? OK, we can afford to prosecute this crime, but not this one? It's just ridiculous. Our whole world has been turned upside down," Cathi said.
"Illegal aliens slip back and forth across the border all the time. What are they going to do next time he gets tanked-up and almost kills someone? Just look the other way? It could be my wife and kids next time. It could be you," Larry said.
HOSPITALS LEFT HOLDING THE BAG
by Patrick Cavanaugh
It's not just the Marana Police Department hesitating to arrest hospitalized illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, although other law enforcement agencies say they try to be scrupulous in following-up with an arrest after the migrant has been released from the hospital.
"It's a huge problem for small jurisdictions along the border," said Sixto Molina, chief of the South Tucson Department of Public Safety. "The cost of covering the medical care of undocumented aliens would be just too much for most small agencies. Generally, we'll arrange to be notified by the hospital if a suspect is going to be released."
Sgt. Marco Borboa, a spokesperson for the Tucson Police Department, said his agency follows a similar procedure.
"Generally we just find out when they are going to be released and then come back and make the arrest if necessary, although depending on the circumstance, we may place an officer to guard them," Borboa said.
When law enforcement manages to duck the tab, the cost for treatment usually falls on hospitals.
A study last year sponsored by the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association estimated Arizona hospitals absorbed $40 million in healthcare costs incurred by illegal migrants.
Representatives from Tucson's two hospitals that receive trauma patients, University Medical Center and Tucson Medical Center, said they generally have more problem with the U.S. Border Patrol delaying the arrest of illegal immigrants than with municipal law enforcement agencies.
"It's a huge issue for hospitals with the Border Patrol," said Katie Reily, a spokeswoman with UMC. "It's been going on for years but from what I've seen, it's mostly the Border Patrol."
The Border Patrol did not return requests for comment.
"A bill gets generated and someone has to pay it. That's generally the hospitals picking up the cost in these cases," said Michael Letson, spokesperson for TMC. "Most of these agencies don't have it in their budgets. It's something that society has to address because right now there's not a mechanism in place to pay for it."