State asserts DEA agent has no federal immunity for fatal Salem collision

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent who ran through a stop sign and fatally collided with a cyclist while surveilling a suspected drug dealer in Salem had no job-related need to break traffic laws, lawyers for the state of Oregon argued in newly-unsealed court documents.

The Oregon Department of Justice contends that Samuel T. Landis, 38, should be tried in Marion County Circuit Court on a negligent homicide charge instead of seeking immunity in federal court.

The state outlined its reasoning in a filing made to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The state lawyers are seeking to overturn a federal judge’s decision that Landis was justified in seeking protection from prosecution through federal immunity laws. The Justice Department filed the appeal on Jan. 8 under seal, meaning it wasn’t publicly available. That legal protection dropped away last week.

The court filings provide the legal argument for why Landis should stand trial in Marion County, where he was indicted last September. But they also provided the most detailed record yet of  what happened on March 28 that led to the death of Salem cyclist Marganne Allen, 53.

If the case remains in federal court, Landis can assert he’s immune from prosecution, which could lead to charges being dropped. The federal agent can’t use that defense in state court.

The state is asking the appellate court to order the federal judge to send the case back to Marion County. Landis hasn’t yet filed his response. The appellate court hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the state’s appeal.

On the afternoon of the crash, Landis and other law enforcement officers were tracking someone suspected of trafficking large amounts of fentanyl. Seven federal agents and Salem Police Department officers were following the suspect through the Gaiety Hill neighborhood south of downtown, taking turns tracking the vehicle so the suspect wouldn’t become suspicious.

Court records show Landis drove through the intersection of Southeast Leslie and High Streets, disobeying a stop sign. He drove a government pickup truck into Allen’s path as she rode south on High Street. She died later that day at Salem Hospital.

A Keizer police detective determined the cause of the crash was Landis’ failure to obey the stop sign at the intersection, court records show.

A Marion County Grand Jury on Sept. 6 indicted Landis, who posted bond but continues to work as a federal drug agent.

A federal judge in December ordered the case moved to federal court after Landis’ attorneys argued the agent was immune from prosecution because the collision happened while he was acting as a federal agent tracking a drug dealer. Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson objected to the removal.

In the appeal, state lawyers say Landis did not need to run the stop sign because of his job.

“When a federal officer claims federal immunity from charges arising out of an on-duty vehicle crash, that test requires the officer to show that the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that the action that resulted in the crash was necessary to fulfill the officer’s duties,” the state argued in its appeal. “As a general matter, an action that violates the usual rules of the road will be ‘necessary’ only when there is some exigency that requires the officer to violate that law.”

That wasn’t the case with Landis, the state argued.

“As his own testimony conceded, there was no job-related urgency that required him to ignore the stop sign,” the state filing said.

In their argument, state attorneys cited an earlier federal court decision where a federal employee faced criminal prosecution for violating traffic laws while on the job.

In 1985, U.S. postal worker Kathryn Mesa was charged with misdemeanor manslaughter after she fatally collided with a cyclist in her mail truck. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that Mesa’s case could not be removed to federal court because although she was on duty as a federal employee, her job didn’t require her to violate traffic laws.

Landis’ attorneys have argued that the agent only needs to assert a plausible federal defense to have the case moved to federal court.

“The question is whether there is a plausible argument that the steps Agent Landis took were necessary and proper in executing his official duties,” his attorneys wrote. “There clearly is – Agent Landis was attempting to maintain sight of a target that was distributing fentanyl –and he reasonably believed his actions were justified.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.