Thursday, January 25, 2007
Taxpayers footing bill for illegal immigrant's defense
If they seem a little light, consider the legal bills for a Mexican citizen's fight to get out of jail pending a Knoxville drug charge to which he pleaded guilty Tuesday.
Juan Lino-Gomez, 28, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan to charges that he conspired with three other men to sell marijuana in East Tennessee over a two-year period.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Winck said Lino-Gomez in a single transaction last July sold 100 pounds of marijuana. Unlucky for him, though, his customer turned out to be an undercover agent, and he and his alleged cohorts were arrested, Winck said.
But Lino-Gomez's case offers up more than a garden-variety pot-pushing conspiracy. It is a primer on the price tag that prosecutions involving illegal immigrants can carry.
Start with the salaries of lead investigators, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Todd Lee and Knoxville Police Department Investigator Bruce Conkey.
Next, add in cash taxpayers fork out to cover Winck's salary. As a veteran federal prosecutor, he doesn't come cheap.
Then, figure in the cost of defense attorney Stephen Ross Johnson, who was appointed to the case because Lino-Gomez said he could not afford to hire counsel.
Appointed attorneys earn $92 per hour up to a maximum of $7,000. A court-appointed attorney can earn another $5,000 to handle an appeal.
Because Lino-Gomez has not yet been sentenced, the cost of his defense has not yet been calculated. But Johnson certainly has racked up dozens of hours of work in the case, if not more. After all, the zealous defense attorney pitched an appeal for Lino-Gomez's freedom to two local judges and an appellate court panel.
According to court records, Lino-Gomez first entered the United States on a student visa. He returned on a work visa, but it had long run out when he was nabbed last July peddling marijuana in Knoxville.
Winck asked U.S. District Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton to keep Lino-Gomez behind bars. He argued it was a no-brainer.
"Defendant is a citizen of and has ties to Mexico," Winck wrote. "(He) is facing a lengthy sentence if convicted. (He) has no ties to this district."
Not so fast, Johnson countered.
"A determination may be made that he is not deportable on the basis of his direct familial relationship with United States citizens, such as his two biological children," Johnson wrote in rebuttal.
Guyton sided with Winck. Johnson appealed to Varlan, who also sided with Winck. Johnson then took his argument to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel shot him down in an order filed last month.
"The defendant is not a United States citizen," the court order stated.
Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.