Judge says DEA agent’s duties could justify dropping charge in fatal cyclist collision 

A federal judge in Eugene said last week that surveillance is a key job duty for an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and could justify the agent running a stop sign and killing a Salem cyclist. 

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane agreed on Dec. 12 to move the criminal case involving Samuel T. Landis to federal court because the DEA agent was on duty at the time as part of a team surveilling a major drug dealer.

The move to federal court will allow Landis, 38, to argue he is immune from prosecution. That legal defense does not exist under state law and could mean the federal charge would be dropped. 

McShane’s reasoning for transferring the case was based on secret evidence rather than witnesses. Marion County prosecutors and Landis’ attorneys agreed to stamp their evidence confidential. 

One of Landis’ attorneys, Amy Potter, said at the Dec. 12 hearing that they had made an agreement with prosecutors to have no witnesses testify before the judge decided whether to move the case to federal court.

McShane said at the hearing that Landis as a DEA agent was tasked with enforcing federal drug laws, and “performing surveillance is part of that enforcement,” according to a court transcript obtained by Salem Reporter through a public records request.

READ IT: Court hearing transcript

That finding came three months after Landis was charged in Marion County Circuit Court with criminally negligent homicide for his role in a March collision that killed cyclist Marganne Allen.

“He was clearly acting under the color of his office. I’m not saying every action he’s taking is expressly authorized, but the issue ultimately will come down to whether his actions were reasonable in light of the circumstances,” the federal judge said at the hearing.

The public has been barred from viewing court filings submitted as evidence in the Landis case. Exhibits sealed from the public included the DEA’s surveillance plan, the federal agency’s policy, testimony from grand jurors, a collision reconstruction report, video of the crash and a statement that Landis’ former attorney gave to police, according to the court transcript.

Attorneys for Landis did not respond to written questions about why the evidence was sealed and why the public shouldn’t know the basis for the judge’s decision.

The Marion County District Attorney’s Office will continue as prosecutors in federal court.

Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy said Wednesday that prosecutors’ exhibits contained “confidential and/or sensitive” information that can be sealed under federal law.

“The case was argued in open court, and anyone interested in the litigation could attend and observe the proceedings where the evidence was discussed,” Murphy told Salem Reporter in an email. 

He said the judge provided context for his ruling at the Dec. 12 hearing. 

“This is how courts regularly inform the public regarding the basis of their decisions. To what extent the court discusses how it relied on particular evidence, if at all, is within the discretion of the judge,” he said. “Sometimes our obligation to ensure a fair, impartial and constitutional trial for criminal defendants conflicts with the public’s desire to know any and all information that may be relevant. Public disclosure of information in a manner that negatively affects a fair proceeding could be a violation of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct for litigants.”

Landis’ attorneys said in court filings that he and several other undercover officers were surveilling a person suspected of trafficking large amounts of fentanyl in the Salem area at the time of the crash. They said Landis lost sight of the drug dealer and was trying to regroup when he collided with the cyclist.

Prosecutors argued at the hearing 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. 

“Not only that, there was more than enough agents available to maintain visual on the target,” Marion County Deputy District Attorney Ashley Cadotte said at the hearing.

McShane responded that the federal immunity defense was intended to protect law enforcement officers who need to make split-second decisions.

He said the agent only had to prove that he had a valid federal defense – not that his defense would win – to justify his case being moved to federal court.

“Mr. Landis does have an immunity defense that would protect him from state prosecution if he can show his actions were authorized by law, and he did not do more than what was necessary and proper,” he said.

Landis’ attorneys also said in their court filing that DEA policy and police practice allows for violating traffic laws in certain circumstances.

But prosecutors said at the hearing that DEA policy requires prioritizing public safety over any enforcement work. Cadotte quoted from the policy, saying, “Traffic and parking laws will not be violated to the detriment of public and personal safety.”

The policy is part of the evidence the judge ruled could be sealed from public view.

Cadotte asked the judge to consider that the collision occurred on a rainy day in a residential area with other people “traveling on the roadways,” according to the court transcript.  

She noted that Landis never said in earlier statements that he needed to run the stop sign to continue pursuing the suspect. She also said the other agents who were part of the surveillance mission testified that “there was no imminent danger, there was no pursuit, there was no urgency.”

At the hearing, Landis’ attorney said a Salem police detective testified that it is important in surveillance missions to have “a lot of cars.”

Potter said the agent believed that he slowed down enough to make it through the intersection safely. She said other officers who were present all admitted to violating traffic laws, and that another DEA agent ran the same stop sign moments before Landis tried to catch up with the group.

“We will say, in hindsight, that was the wrong move to go through the stop sign. But what they train these agents to do in these surveillance situations is analyze it to the best of their ability. And that’s what he did. And he reasonably thought he could do this,” she said. “We know a lot of things now. We know about the hill coming down and how fast the bicyclists go. We know about the hedge that made it really hard for him to see.”

Landis’ attorneys also said at the hearing that they will later file a motion to dismiss the criminal case altogether.

Marion County prosecutors have requested that the Oregon Department of Justice consider appealing the judge’s order moving the case to federal court.

As of Wednesday evening, the state agency was still reviewing whether it would appeal the federal order, according to Roy Kaufmann, spokesman for the Justice Department

A jury trial is scheduled to begin May 1 in Eugene U.S. District Court. 

The cyclist, Allen, 53, was on her way home from her state job, 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 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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Secrecy surrounds case of DEA agent charged for Salem cyclist’s death

DEA agent jailed, released on charge for Salem cyclist’s death

DEA agent faces state felony charge in death of Salem cyclist

Salem police gave video evidence to investigators three months after cyclist’s death

City kept in close touch with DEA following fatal cyclist collision, records show

Video shows driver ran stop sign in fatal collision with Salem cyclist

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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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.