When Enforcing Undocumented Workers Law, One Police Department Dominates
By DAVE ALTIMARI,
The Hartford Courant
7:42 PM EST, January 21, 2012
EAST HAVEN —
Dealing with immigration law is primarily a federal issue, but over the past 10 years local police departments have issued 14 tickets under an obscure state statute that prohibits businesses from employing someone who is in the country illegally.
Half of those citations have been issued in East Haven, almost all of them by two officers currently under a federal investigation probing charges of racial discrimination within the department.
State Judicial Department records show that two other local police departments, Danbury and Hamden, each issued two citations over 10 years. The only other departments to cite the statute were Bethel, Easton and Norwalk.
East Haven police issued seven "31-51k" violations, including three each by Dennis Spaulding and Jason Zullo, two officers among many in the department who are under investigation by a federal grand jury probing whether they've been violating the civil rights of Latinos. The Justice Department's civil rights division has already determined that the department has disciminated against minorities.
East Haven Police Chief Leonard Gallo declined to comment.
Four of those seven East Haven cases were nolled or dismissed after the business owner challenged the charges in court so the records have been destroyed. In the three other three cases the business owners paid the $250 fine.
One of those who paid was Scott Harrison, who owns a local roofing company.
On Feb. 28, 2008, Harrison arrived at the scene of an accident on Hemingway Avenue involving one of his company's vans, which was being driven by a man named Jose Portillo, according to the police report.
By the time Harrison arrived Zullo had already questioned Portillo, who did not have a driver's license. Instead, he showed Zullo identification issued by the Mexican government.
In his police report, Zullo wrote that Portillo told him he had been working for Harrison's roofing company for about a year and had borrowed the van to run an errand when the accident occurred. Zullo cited Portillo for failing to grant the right of way.
He then wrote out a ticket for Harrison for employing Portillo.
"He gave me a ticket because he said the guy was working for me and he was illegal,'' Harrison said. "I had no idea what he was talking about."
In his report, Zullo said he questioned Harrison about Portillo's immigration status.
"I asked Harrison if he knew that Portillo was an illegal alien,'' Zullo wrote. "Harrison did not comment, but just shrugged his shoulders and turned away."
Harrison said he never told Zullo that Portillo worked for him, only that he had let him borrow the van, but he took the ticket and walked away.
"Whatever the cop wrote in his report is what he wanted to put in there," Harrison said. "I was pretty pissed off and I almost ended up getting arrested.''
The two other cases involve Spaulding, a controversial officer at the center of the federal investigation into whether the department targets Hispanics for traffic stops and violates their civil rights.
Spaulding was involved in an incident two years ago that led to the ongoing federal investigation. The Rev. James Manship was arrested while trying to videotape the arrest of a Latino man inside the My Country Store on Main Street by Spaulding and another East Haven officer.
That arrest led to the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit and the investigation by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. In December Deputy U.S. Attorney Roy Austin called the department "profoundly broken" as he announced the results of the division's investigation.
That investigation found that East Haven police stopped an inordinately high number of Latinos for traffic violations. For some officers, nearly 50 percent of motor vehicle stops over the two-year period involved Latino drivers. The town has a Latino population of less than 10 percent.
Sources have said one of those officers with nearly a 50 percent rate is Spaulding. Sources said he also is one of the officers under criminal investigation by a federal grand jury sitting in Bridgeport.
When the results of the civil investigation were announced in December, U.S. Attorney David Fein said the criminal investigation was ongoing. Sources said that investigation is now wrapping up and could be concluded as early as next week.
It is unclear whether federal officials have looked at the department's high number of citations for employing illegal immigrants.
Of the cases that were not nolled or dismissed, both of the incidents in which Spaulding cited a business owner occurred in 2008. In the first incident on April 19, Spaulding conducted a motor vehicle stop on a man named Gerardo DeLeon as he was headed to work as a dishwasher at the Futon Diner.
"DeLeon stated he is not legal in the U.S. and is a Mexican citizen,'' Spaulding wrote.
Spaulding then went to the diner and confronted the owner, Mohammed Uddin, about DeLeon's legal status before issuing him the ticket. Uddin could not be reached for comment.
The second incident occurred on May 28 when Spaulding stopped an Acura driven by Santiago Castro on Main Street.
"I made a [motor vehicle] stop on Main Street which involved an unlicensed driver of illegal alien status,'' Spaulding wrote in his incident report.
When Fernando Benitez showed up to claim his car he told Spaulding he had just let one of his workers borrow it. Benitez could not be reached for comment.
"It was determined that Benitez, who appears to be a citizen, was employing a known illegal alien. This officer cited him for same," Spaulding said.
Spaulding is on paid administrative leave after a Town Fair Tire vice president complained to then-Mayor April Capone that Spaulding was waiting for employees of the company to arrive or leave work, stopping them and checking to see if they had the proper paperwork.
Copyright © 2012, The Hartford Courant