State officials are wrongly challenging a federal judge for accepting a DEA agent’s defense that he ran a stop sign and killed a cyclist because he was tracking a drug dealer at the time, the agent argued Wednesday in federal court.
Attorneys for Samuel T. Landis said anew that his criminal case belongs in federal court. There, he can argue he is immune from prosecution because he broke traffic laws as part of his work for the U.S. government.
His lawyers pushed back against the state in a new filing in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. State lawyers last month appealed a federal judge’s decision to take the case out of Marion County Circuit Court.
While the appeal is pending, Landis’ prosecution is on hold for criminally negligent homicide in the March 2023 death of cyclist Marganne Allen. Court records indicate he continues working as a federal law enforcement agent despite the felony charge.
The Court of Appeals has not scheduled a hearing in the case.
Landis’ attorneys contended that he only needed to claim that he might get immunity at the federal level to justify the shift to federal court. A federal judge in December agreed with their argument and elevated his case to Eugene U.S. District Court.
The agent can only seek immunity in federal court because that legal defense does not exist under Oregon law.
The Justice Department said Landis’ immunity defense was unjustified.
His attorneys argued in their response Wednesday that the state attorneys haven’t proven U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane erred in removing the case from state court.
They said, as they have earlier, that Landis thought he was doing the right thing in disobeying a stop sign at a Salem intersection.
Documents unsealed last week in federal court provided a detailed account of the collision.
The day of the crash, Landis was part of a team of federal agents investigating a drug cartel smuggling fentanyl out of Mexico to sell in the Salem area.
Landis, four other federal agents and three Salem police officers tag-teamed a drug courier in separate, unmarked vehicles so that the driver wouldn’t notice the tail.
“Agent Landis was driving one of the cars further behind the suspect, but he needed to remain close to the group to ensure he could pick up surveillance as needed,” his attorneys said in their filing. “The surveillance in this case was particularly challenging because the target was driving erratically.”
“Even surveillance officers who are further back in a line of vehicles must be ready to move into the primary position or provide cover to the primary vehicle if necessary to ensure that the surveillance remains covert and that contact with the suspect is maintained,” Landis’ attorneys wrote.
Police records established that five other agents were ahead of Landis and that he was a mile away from the courier at the time of the crash.
The agent slowed down on Southeast Leslie Street as he approached the intersection with High street and “assessed the situation,” his appellate filing said. “Agent Landis looked forward into the intersection and to each side and, seeing nothing, continued forward to maintain his position.”
“He believed both that he could safely proceed into the intersection without coming to a full stop, and that he needed to do so in order to achieve the important goal of staying with his team,” his attorneys said. Even though the mission was not pressing enough to require lights and sirens, Landis’ fellow agents “believed that it was necessary and proper to violate traffic laws to perform their surveillance mission.”
He entered the intersection going about 19 miles per hour and didn’t stop before driving into the cyclist’s path. Allen died later that day at Salem Hospital.
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.