Saturday, September 25, 1999

Maui cops
targeting Hispanics,
says group

In August, a Mexican national
allegedly caused a Maui
officer's death

By Gary T. Kubota


WAILUKU -- Some leaders in the Hispanic community say Maui police officers have been making patrol stops to interrogate Latinos about their immigration status without cause, as a result of a Mexican citizen's arrest in the traffic death of a police officer.

They also are upset at what they view as an unfair emphasis in the news media portraying the alleged killer as an "illegal alien."

"There certainly are some inequities in this," said Rudy Esquer, a member of La Vos Hispanic ("The Hispanic Voice"), a newly formed group to discuss problems facing Hispanics on Maui.

The charges about an ethnicity-based backlash follow the arrest of Ricardo Rodriguez-Pantoja, a 25-year-old Mexican national who on Aug. 9 allegedly drove his pickup truck into a car that ran over police Officer Gene Williams, causing an explosive fire that killed the officer.

Rodriguez-Pantoja, who worked as a cook at a Lahaina restaurant under a false identify and without a proper immigration permit, was arrested after allegedly fleeing the scene of the West Maui accident.

Esquer said that while he does not condone the crime, he's doubtful that if a Hawaiian had killed a police officer, headlines and stories would focus on the race of the person responsible for the officer's death.

Maui police Chief Thomas Phillips said that as a policy, police officers do not stop people to ask for their immigration papers.

He said he hasn't received any complaints about Hispanics being stopped without cause and would be willing to investigate incidents reported to him.

As part of their work, Phillips said, police sometimes check the immigration status of a person who may be near the scene of a burglary, or during questioning in narcotics investigations.

La Vos Hispanic member Francisco Palencia said Hispanic immigrants are reluctant to file complaints because they fear retaliation.

Some Maui residents also have raised questions about the manslaughter charge filed against Rodriguez-Pantoja.

Within the last 10 years, the county prosecutor's office has brought a charge of negligent homicide against persons allegedly responsible for traffic deaths. Rodriguez-Pantoja is the first person on Maui to be charged with manslaughter in a traffic death.

First-degree negligent homicide carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, while a person convicted of manslaughter faces up to 20 years in prison.

Palencia said that on the Big Island in July, a police officer was placed on one-year probation after pleading no contest to negligent homicide and guilty to drunken driving in the traffic death of another police officer.

Maui Prosecutor Richard Bissen said his office brought the manslaughter charge against Rodriguez-Pantoja because of the details in the case and not because the victim was a police officer.

Bissen said that until mid-1996 the penalty for manslaughter carried the same 10-year maximum prison term as negligent homicide, and his office decided to use negligent homicide as the vehicle for prosecution because it carried a lesser burden of proof.

With the change in the maximum penalty to 20 years and because of the facts in the case, his office decided to seek a manslaughter conviction against Rodriguez-Pantoja, he said.

Attorney Stuart Ragan, representing Rodriguez-Pantoja, said he plans to review the charges against his client.

"I want to make sure the emotion is removed from this case and it's simply tried on its merits," Ragan said.

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