Miscarriage of justice

Visiting Vietnamese scholar loses baby days after frantic customs raid in Davis

Davis resident Linda Clark, who lives across the street from and owns the Oak Avenue property, filed a formal complaint about the customs raid. She is seen here with the door police bashed in to enter the home.

Davis resident Linda Clark, who lives across the street from and owns the Oak Avenue property, filed a formal complaint about the customs raid. She is seen here with the door police bashed in to enter the home.

Photo By Louise Mitchell

In an effort to protect their privacy, the names of students living in the home that was raided are not mentioned in this story.

Don’t Google “liberal morality.”

The term, which sounds like something Ann Coulter would mock, is at the center of a customs raid that rattled the pedal-mellow university city of Davis last spring and potentially contributed to the miscarriage of a young Vietnamese woman.

The April 26 operation has since sparked an inquiry by the monolithic Department of Homeland Security into whether its Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm followed proper procedure in sending squads of armed federal agents to a quiet home more than a year after an alleged crime was traced to that address.

Agents were at the Oak Avenue residence that brisk Tuesday morning searching for evidence of child pornography—images reportedly downloaded or transmitted from the site called www.liberalmorality.com around March 2010, according to statements by witnesses. What they found instead was a house occupied mostly by foreign students who didn’t understand the commands being shouted at them.

“People were scared out of their minds because there was guns and shouting,” said Tylor Murray-Clark, a Sacramento City College sophomore and one of three native English-speakers living at the house at the time of the raid.

It all went down at 6 a.m., which is a prime time for unannounced raids, according to federal law-enforcement officials. Thirty minutes earlier, Murray-Clark had slumped into his bed in the south end of the house after a marathon essay-writing session. A half-hour into a shallow sleep, the 19-year-old awoke to a chaotic din of pounding and screaming coming from the center of the spacious, one-story home. Yanking on a pair of jeans and making his way to what he thought might be an attempted break-in, the groggy undergrad soon found himself staring down the barrels of several guns.

“When (an agent) handcuffed me, that’s when it clicked that it wasn’t a dream,” Murray-Clark recalled weeks later.

According to statements by Murray-Clark and his grandmother, Linda Clark, who lives across the street and owns the property that was searched, the first to answer the door that brisk Tuesday morning was a young Chilean man in Davis to study English.

For his trouble, the international student “was hit repeatedly across the back of his head” while lying face down on the ground, Clark’s complaint states. “This even after being told by another resident that he and several other of the occupants were not fluent in English.”

As one of three American citizens living at the house, Murray-Clark became the agents’ reluctant informant.

How many people lived here? Where were their rooms? Questions Murray-Clark expected investigators to know were instead barked his way. Outside, Murray-Clark could see his roommate, an unemployed custodian, standing in the backyard with guns trained on him. When Murray-Clark informed agents of the two Vietnamese women sharing the master bedroom, he said men in tactical gear rushed down the narrow hallway with guns drawn, despite his explanation that the pair spoke little English.

According to Murray-Clark and his grandmother Linda Clark, who spoke to the women after the raid, the visiting scholars from a North Vietnamese university had huddled behind the locked bedroom door, terrified at the baffling commotion unfolding outside. When they finally let agents in, they were forced to the ground at gunpoint. One of them was a few months pregnant at the time.

“They were actually most gentle with me, and you’d think I’d be the one they’d be most worried about,” Murray-Clark, a tall and muscled 200 pounds, remarked with some bewilderment. “They were least gentle with the people who couldn’t understand a word, or couldn’t speak much English.”

It was only after the house was cleared that Murray-Clark saw the warrant agents claimed to have during their initial, frantic sweep through the home. Agents spent the rest of the morning dismantling computers, examining hard drives and asking tenants questions about their pornography preferences and masturbation habits. Some were nicer than others. One remarked that they had “failed to communicate on this one,” Murray-Clark remembers, citing a sealed door agents smashed their way through, before learning it led to a room they had already cleared.

No one was arrested and the bizarre episode might have dissipated like a troubling dream had it not been for an urgent hospital visit a few days later.

That Friday, one of the Vietnamese women ran across the street to get Linda Clark. Her roommate, who had experienced stomach cramps the same day of the raid, was now noticing brown spotting. Several hours later, in the emergency room at Sutter Davis Medical Center, the woman’s worst fears were confirmed—she had miscarried.

“The whole thing was funny until there was an actual casualty,” Murray-Clark said.

The initial dust-up following the raid was superficial and quickly evaporated. ICE agreed to notify university officials if and when it conducted future operations in the city, said Andy Fell, a science writer and spokesman for the university.

Asked whether the university’s international partners expressed any concerns about the raid, Fell added via email: “The Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco expressed concern over ICE’s handling of this matter and asked for a review by the Office of Foreign Missions (State Department). I understand that the campus administration followed up with the Vietnamese home university of three of the visiting scholars who were subject to the ICE action to advise of our concern.”

The deputy consul general of Vietnam did not return requests for comment.

The Davis City Council did little more than briefly wring its hands before moving on to other matters, Linda Clark said. After filing her formal complaint, Clark received a June 24 response letter from Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties thanking her for her concerns and explaining that any remedies would be directed internally.

“Please be advised that our complaint process does not provide individuals with legal or procedural rights or remedies,” wrote Jeffrey S. Blumberg, director of the office’s compliance branch. “If you believe your rights have been violated, you may wish to consult an attorney.”

Asked whether the complaint had yet resulted in any findings, an ICE spokeswoman replied with the same prepared statement provided to another media outlet.

“Because that investigation is continuing, we are not at liberty to disclose further details about the case at this time,” the statement from Virginia Kice reads, in part.

The case itself has been sealed, according to Tim Hinkle, secretary for U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan, who signed the search and seizure warrant a day before the operation commenced.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the federal government is circling its wagons. On August 30 and September 2, Clark said she was questioned by a Homeland Security agent from Chicago investigating the procedures followed by law enforcement the day of the controversial operation.

Clark greeted the news with equal amounts of hope and trepidation.

“Apparently, somebody has decided to take this complaint seriously,” she said.

While Homeland Security representatives wouldn’t comment on the case, a federal law enforcement official who spoke on background said it’s standard practice to investigate the layout of a home and its occupants before conducting a search and seizure operation—typically using tools like DMV records, utility bills and good old-fashioned surveillance.

“You try to get as much information about the people, the house as you can before doing the search,” the official said.

But the fact that college students are prone to frequent moves without always updating their addresses with the DMV can complicate such investigative efforts, the official pointed out.

The official did defend the display of weaponry, saying it’s standard for law enforcement to conduct a search with guns drawn until a location is cleared. It’s even common for those guns to be pointed at people.

“It is a frightening experience,” the official acknowledged. “It’s not something I’d want an innocent person to go through, especially a young student from another country.”

For their part, Murray-Clark and his grandmother would like to see Homeland Security abolish the tactics they considered excessive.

“I’d like them to take a look at their policies with the amount of force they use,” Murray-Clark said. “Them saying they messed up would be nice.”

But no one expects that.

This story has been corrected from the original version