PUBLIC SAFETY

Federal judges clear way for DEA agent to claim immunity

A DEA agent who ran a stop sign and killed a Salem cyclist last year will be prosecuted for criminally negligent homicide in federal court, where he can seek immunity because of his work for the U.S. government and possibly get the charge dismissed.

Three judges in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday rejected state attorneys’ effort to send the case back to Marion County Circuit Court, where Samuel T. Landis was originally charged for his role in the collision that killed cyclist Marganne Allen.

Landis, 38, can now press ahead defending himself at the federal level by asserting an immunity defense which doesn’t exist in state court. 

The Marion County District Attorney’s Office will have to prosecute the charge before a federal judge.

But Landis’s attorneys have indicated in earlier court hearings that they will press to have the judge find that the agent is immune from prosecution. If that happens, the charge would be dismissed.

READ IT: Appellate judges’ memorandum

The appellate judges based their decision on evidence including statements from other agents who were tracking a major drug dealer with Landis when the crash occurred. They testified that officers sometimes violate traffic laws while doing surveillance.

“At least one other officer who was part of the DEA operation during which the collision occurred violated traffic laws to execute his duties effectively,” the judges wrote. Landis also testified before a Marion County grand jury that he was trying to catch up with his team and “was driving with that purpose when the collision occurred.”

Judges Margaret McKeown, Carlos Bea and John Owens also said that there was no proof Landis was removing himself from the surveillance operation when he ran the stop sign and that evidence shows going through the intersection “may have been objectively reasonable under the circumstances.”

They found that an Oregon federal judge in December was correct to move the criminal case to federal court after concluding that surveillance is a key duty of Landis’s work for the U.S. government and could justify the agent breaking state traffic laws. 

The Oregon Department of Justice in January appealed the federal judge’s decision on behalf of Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson.

“We argued that the case should be tried in state court, but we respect the court’s ruling otherwise,” Justice Department spokesman Roy Kaufmann said.

Clarkson did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.

The difference between the state and federal cases comes down to immunity. In federal court, Landis can argue he shouldn’t be charged because he was performing as a federal officer. In state court, he would have needed to face the felony charge.

State attorneys argued at a May 7 federal court hearing that there was no evidence of any urgency or emergency that required the agent to violate traffic laws.

McKeown and Owens said during the hearing that the agent only had to prove that his federal defense was valid, not that it would win, to justify his case being moved to federal court. 

Thoennes, the state attorney, responded that the burden was on Landis to prove his defense was valid, and he didn’t do so. 

Amy Potter, an attorney representing Landis, told the judges that the agent had presented a valid immunity defense.

While lights and sirens weren’t needed, “there was a certain level of urgency,” she said.

Potter said at the time that if the state’s appeal was denied and the case stayed in federal court, she intended to seek dismissal of the case. 

Then, she said the key question will not be if running the stop sign was necessary, but whether Landis believed it was necessary based on what he knew at the time.

This story was updated after the Oregon Department of Justice provided a statement.

RELATED COVERAGE:

Fate of DEA agent’s criminal prosecution now rests with appellate judges

DEA agent disputes state’s appeal, insists on seeking immunity in bike crash

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

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

DEA agent admits role in fatal cyclist collision, seeks federal immunity

DEA agent faces state felony charge in death of Salem cyclist

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.