SAN ANTONIO – Police in San Antonio recently took the unusual step of charging a man suspected of smuggling 12 immigrants with a state felony instead of referring the case to federal authorities.
Herbert Alan Nichols of Houston was arrested Dec. 23 and charged with smuggling of persons. In a report published Thursday, police told the San Antonio Express-News that they interviewed the 12 people inside the tractor-trailer Nichols was allegedly driving, then released them. According to the newspaper, the 12 people were suspected of having entered the U.S. illegally.
In July, when San Antonio police discovered a trailer outside a Walmart in a smuggling case where 10 people died, U.S. authorities charged the driver and detained the people found inside. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., pleaded guilty in October. Another person remains charged in that case.
An additional 29 people who survived being in the trailer were detained. Immigrant advocates representing the survivors have said that many of them were eventually deported or sent back to their country of origin.
San Antonio police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Ramos said it made sense for the city to handle the new case in part because the department received a $500,000 grant last year to train its officers on human trafficking and smuggling.
"We certainly will work with our federal counterparts," Ramos said. "We have a working relationship."
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the newspaper that the agency offered its help. ICE did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment from The Associated Press.
Smuggling of persons is a felony under Texas law. Prosecutors don't have to prove that the people being smuggled were immigrants. It is a rarely used charge in San Antonio, despite the city's proximity to major interstate highways and the U.S.-Mexico border city of Laredo, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) away.
The Express-News reported that according to online court records in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, just one person has been prosecuted in the county since 2011.
San Antonio is among the cities that challenged a state law that targets so-called sanctuary cities. Parts of the law were allowed to go into effect by a federal appeals court last year.
San Antonio police Chief William McManus was an outspoken opponent of the law. As it went into effect, the department changed a policy that prohibited officers from asking people it detained about their immigration status. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice backed the law and the state in court.
In Nichols' case, McManus arrived at the scene where officers spoke to Nichols outside his tractor-trailer, according to a police report released Thursday.
The report says Nichols admitted to picking up the people inside from a warehouse in Laredo and driving them to San Antonio, where they were going to be picked up. Bradley, the driver of the trailer in July, also admitted driving from Laredo to San Antonio, though he initially denied knowing people were inside his trailer.
Nichols did not have a listed phone number or an attorney in online records who could comment on his behalf.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com