Latino activist does 17 days in jail for looking suspicious
Planning to capitalize on the swarms of protesters opposing President Bush’s Earth Day visit to West Sacramento, members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and several friends set out on the morning of April 22 to pass out fliers at the event for the upcoming immigrants’-rights march.
They didn’t know that their attempt to exercise a little free speech would lead to one of their volunteers being jailed as a potential terrorist. Now the Latino activists are seeking justice for what they consider to be the wrongful arrest of that volunteer, Arturo Solorio.
Solorio said he never even intended to go to the April 22 protest. According to a Yolo County public defender’s investigation report, LULAC President Frank Gonzales said he stopped by Solorio’s house on the way to the protest and asked him to help hand out fliers. Solorio said he had things to do, but after several minutes of convincing and some promised money for laundry detergent, he agreed to help.
Upon arriving at the intersection of Beacon Boulevard and Industrial Boulevard, where about 1,000 protesters were being kept a safe distance away from the presidential appearance, Solorio helped distribute fliers. After a while, Solorio said, he grew tired and decided to take a break, so he leaned against a nearby building.
During his break, Solorio said, he noticed a grubby bag in the bushes near his resting spot. The several wires protruding out of the bag alarmed Solorio, who suspected that the suspicious bag might contain an explosive device.
Solorio said he briefly picked up the bag and then threw it back down. He noticed Elk Grove police officer Joe Riley, on hand for extra security during the presidential visit, observing him from afar. According to the police report, Solorio made eye contact with Riley and pointed at the bag. “If there was a bomb, I was trying to save people,” said Solorio.
According to Solorio, Riley shook his head, and Solorio walked away from the bag to go rest on the tailgate of Gonzales’ pickup truck.
A short time afterward, police whisked Solorio away and began inspecting Gonzales’ truck. Eight to 10 police officers surrounded the group of mostly Latino activists and began searching them as well. When Latino activist Al Rojas questioned the police about their actions, he was told only that the group was being detained for questioning.
Many of the activists are already familiar to the West Sacramento police. And they believe the arrest has something to do the strained relations between the police department and the local Latino community. Most of the activists detained for questioning that day have been publicly critical of West Sacramento’s so-called gang injunction (which imposes curfews and other restrictions on alleged gang-members) and of police conduct during the violent arrest of two Latino immigrants last year.
“I believe it’s because Frank has been very vocal regarding the gang injunction in West Sacramento that we’re getting treated this way,” Rojas said. The police eventually released Gonzales, but it would be 17 days before Solorio would be exonerated at a court hearing.
After police tried to detonate the suspicious bag with a high-pressure water cannon, they learned that the bomb was not a bomb, but a jumble of miscellaneous items, including: electrical junction boxes, metal chain-link-fence ties, plumbing tubing, weather stripping, telephone wiring, construction work gloves, and several pipes and tubes.
Furthermore, according to court documents, several employees at Inacomp, the tech company that occupies the building near where Solorio was resting, said that the bag had been there for weeks before Solorio picked it up. One employee, Steve Arosteguy, called the police when he first saw the bag two weeks before the presidential visit, but the police never responded.
West Sacramento Police Chief Dan Drummond defended his officers’ actions.
“Stop and think about the situation,” Drummond said. “Security is already tight for the presidential visit, and a man appears out of the crowd, drops a bag and then disappears into the crowd again. That is suspicious behavior.”
As for the contents of the “bomb,” Drummond defends police actions, saying that the bomb squad’s initial X-ray showed characteristics of a possible bomb. Drummond also claimed that after hearing that Arosteguy had called about the bag several weeks before, his department checked but found “no records of any calls of that nature.”
Drummond said that police initially arrested Solorio for an outstanding 2003 warrant for domestic violence, an offense that Solorio said he dealt with two years ago but that somehow had not been cleared from police records.
Drummond points to the Yolo County district attorney’s office as being responsible for Solorio’s prolonged detention.
But, according to court documents, it was the West Sacramento police that pushed for a “no bail enhancement” for Solorio at the outset of the investigation. Solorio was still denied bail two weeks later—even as evidence surfaced that proved Solorio’s innocence—until a Yolo Superior Court judge set Solorio free.
“To be quite honest, it was a real awful experience,” Solorio said. “If I had been guilty, then I would have had to pay the consequences, but I wasn’t.”
Solorio, Gonzales and Rojas say they intend to take legal action against the West Sacramento Police Department for what they consider to be racial profiling and illegal detainment.