Crash victim wants justice

Immigration bills could have allowed for driver's arrest

Living in America illegally is not enough to get you arrested. First you have to commit a crime.

That's the consensus among America's law enforcement, but it isn't an easy policy for Jim Batton to accept. His son's girlfriend, Amanda Gschwendner, is still recovering in a wheelchair after a violent wreck Dec. 25 on Hitchcock Parkway in Aiken. The driver of the vehicle responsible was an illegal immigrant, who was charged but not arrested before Aiken Public Safety officers sent him to Medical College of Georgia Hospital for treatment.

The driver was released from the hospital and has since absconded, leaving Batton and Gschwendner outraged and pointing fingers at Aiken Public Safety.

"There's just something really off about that," Gschwendner said. "Who's to say he won't hit someone else?"

Public Safety Director Pete Frommer defended the department's actions last week, saying everything was done by the book. There was no way to know at the scene that the driver was an illegal immigrant, and Public Safety doesn't arrest people for traffic offenses other than DUI, Frommer said.

"We treat everyone the same way," he said.

Just the suspicion that someone is in the country illegally would be enough to detain someone under bills filed in legislatures across the country, including Georgia and South Carolina. The bills are patterned after Arizona's embattled law, which allows officers to demand proof of citizenship and detain anyone who can't provide it.

Proponents say it would give officers much-needed authority to enforce federal immigration law, while critics contend it encourages racial profiling.

Arguably, if such a law was in place, officers could have taken custody of the driver the night of the wreck in Aiken.

Batton was at the scene, and a witness in the car behind Gschwendner's told him someone fled from the vehicle before officers arrived. The driver, who gave the false name Justino Arleo-Pool, spoke to the officer through a Spanish interpreter, Batton said.

The driver was talking with officers until he suddenly said he felt bad. He was immediately sent to MCG, where he was treated and released. Batton said he saw no visible injury to the driver.

Asked why the driver was sent to MCG's trauma center instead of Aiken Regional Medical Centers, Frommer said that call is made by medical professionals, not police.

He said in situations involving a hospitalized suspect, Aiken police rely on the hospital to call when the person is about to be released. At that point, an officer will go to the hospital with warrants and take the suspect to jail.

"That would not apply in a traffic situation," Frommer said, because the department merely issues a summons for traffic offenses.

Other jurisdictions take a different approach to traffic offenses.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said a driver who is intoxicated, driving on a suspended license or causes an accident and is without insurance would be arrested.

If a driver has a valid license but not on his person, he might get away with a warning. If the person has no credible form of identification, he'll probably be arrested, Strength said.

A law that requires officers to check on a person's immigration status "would take more of a deputy's time," Strength said. "That's very obvious."

Still, "We need the authority to do anything and everything we can do," the sheriff said.

North Augusta Public Safety takes a similar approach.

If the records show the person's license was suspended out of state or the driver is involved in a hit-and-run, then he or she will be required to post bond, Lt. Tim Pearson said.

If the person is local or has local ties, the officer will use his discretion in deciding whether to issue a ticket, Pearson said.

Over the past five years there has been an influx of immigrants to Aiken County, but Frommer said his department generally has "very little contact" with them.

"They want to fly under the radar," he said.

Across the Web:

Immigration: a nation divided

New curbs set on arrests of illegal immigrants

Georgia illegal immigration bill creating controversy