An agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration admits he ran a stop sign and killed a Salem cyclist but claims in court filings he shouldn’t be prosecuted because he was trying to track a major drug dealer at the time.
A federal judge in Eugene has agreed to move the criminal case involving Samuel T. Landis to federal court. The move will allow the DEA agent to argue he is immune from prosecution, a legal defense that does not exist under state law. That could mean the criminal charge would be dropped.
The order by U.S. District Judge Michael McShane comes three months after Landis, 38, was charged in Marion County Circuit Court with criminally negligent homicide for his role in a March collision that killed cyclist Marganne Allen.
Landis admits that he saw the stop sign and stated he believed that he slowed down enough to safely enter the intersection at Southeast Leslie and High Streets where the fatal collision occurred, Marion County prosecutors said in a court filing.
Attorneys representing Landis argued that he and several other undercover officers at the time were surveilling a person suspected of trafficking large amounts of fentanyl in the Salem area.
“Agent Landis, along with other law enforcement, lost visual contact with the target. In trying to regroup and locate the target in furtherance of the investigation, Agent Landis inadvertently collided with a cyclist in an intersection,” his attorneys said in an Oct. 16 filing in Eugene U.S. District Court.
READ IT: DEA agent’s court filing
The filing said DEA policy and police practice allows for violating traffic laws in certain circumstances.
“Multiple law enforcement officers testified in grand jury that it is sometimes necessary during surveillance to violate traffic laws to maintain contact with the subject and perform their law enforcement duties,” the agent’s attorneys wrote in a later filing.
They said Landis approached the stop sign, slowed and then drove through.
“He made a decision in an effort to maintain surveillance that resulted in the accident,” his attorneys said in the October filing. “The state’s investigation revealed that Agent Landis was neither speeding nor under the influence at the time of the accident.”
His attorneys wrote that they intend to argue “his actions were necessary and proper,” citing an earlier case in which a judge ruled that federal officers may sometimes violate traffic laws while doing their job.
They also portrayed the surveillance mission as dangerous.
“The operation was part of a larger effort by a task force that includes DEA, the Oregon State Police, the FBI, and the Salem Police Department, which has been investigating a large-scale, international drug trafficking organization distributing fentanyl throughout the West Coast, including in Marion County,” they wrote.
They also confirmed that Landis still works as a DEA agent despite the felony charge. The federal agency has refused for months to verify the status of his employment.
Prosecutors from the Marion County District Attorney’s Office argued in their response to Landis that there were no plans to arrest the suspect that day or disrupt the drug trafficking ring, and officers were only intending to gather information. They said a neighbor’s Ring camera video captured Landis driving on Leslie Street, running the stop sign and colliding with the cyclist, who had the right of way on High Street.
“(Landis’) understanding at the time of the collision is that there was no urgency for him to get to a different location and that there were multiple other law enforcement members who had visual contact of the target,” prosecutors wrote.
READ IT: Marion DA’s court filing
Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson said in a news release Wednesday evening that her office will continue as prosecutors in federal court.
Marion County prosecutors have requested that the state Department of Justice review and consider appealing the federal order.
A jury trial is scheduled to begin May 1 in Eugene U.S. District Court
Court records showed the state case remained open in Marion County Circuit Court as of Wednesday.
Landis turned himself in to the Marion County Jail on Sept. 6, the same day he was indicted. He was released on $2,000 bail under a release agreement that imposed standard conditions that prohibited from leaving the state or having a gun.
He sought and was given a judge’s approval on Oct. 2 to travel out of state for reasons not explained in the court record.
At that same court hearing, one of Landis’s attorneys advised Marion County Circuit Court Judge Tracy Prall that there would be a second request to deviate from the release conditions, this time permission to possess a gun. Prall’s notes from the session show she expected that a declaration would be filed under seal to accomplish that, meaning it would not be accessible to the public.
But Landis made his move in federal court two days before a hearing scheduled for Oct. 18, which was canceled at the time without explanation. No subsequent filings or hearings have been scheduled that would indicate action in the state case.
Landis has been a DEA special agent since 2016, recently working in the federal agency’s Salem office on the joint task force. He previously worked six years as a border patrol agent, according to the agent’s January court affidavit for a drug trafficking case.
The cyclist, Allen, 53, worked for the state for around two decades, most recently as an executive with the state Department of Agriculture and previously in the state Department of Forestry.
She was on her way home from work, cycling downhill on High Street just before rush hour when the collision occurred.
Salem police reported at the time that Landis drove into the intersection and crossed the cyclist’s path.
Video obtained by Salem Reporter showed that the driver of the pickup truck sped down Leslie Street, drove past a stop sign without stopping and into the intersection at High Street where the crash occurred.
The Salem agency announced three days after the cyclist’s death that it was transferring its investigation of the collision to the Keizer Police Department because it was partners in the task force with the DEA.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.