A federal judge in Portland has refused to dismiss charges or suppress evidence against an undocumented immigrant from Honduras whose attorney argued that he was the victim of racial profiling.

Mario Ernesto Garcia-Zavala was detained after a controversial traffic stop in Portland in September and charged with illegally re-entering the United States after being deported four years ago.

A van in which Garcia-Zavala was riding was stopped by a Maine state trooper last September on Interstate 295.

Garcia-Zavala’s lawyer has said the van was pulled over due to racial profiling, while the state trooper who made the stop said he stopped the van because a front seat passenger was not wearing a seatbelt and he later noticed a cracked windshield.

In dashboard-cam recordings, the trooper, Robert Burke III, is heard discussing the situation with another trooper in which the Spanish-speaking passengers are referred to as “disgusting” and “sketchy as hell.”

Burke also makes reference in the videos to a competition with another trooper about who can make the most arrests in a month.


Garcia-Zavala’s lawyer, Robert Andrews, alleged that the traffic stop was too long – the van was detained to provide time for immigration agents to arrive – and there was no probable cause for an arrest. He also sought to have the case dismissed because Garcia-Zavala was held for 13 days before he was brought to face a judge in federal court.

But U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal disagreed. He declined to dismiss the case, finding that Garcia-Zavala was being held on what immigration officials call an administrative hold, which is a civil, rather than criminal proceeding. Suspects facing criminal charges generally have to be brought before a judge within 72 hours.

He also ruled that Garcia-Zavala’s rights were not compromised by the traffic stop itself or by the length of the stop, deciding that it was 21 minutes into the stop when Burke determined that Garcia-Zavala was unlawfully present in the country. Singal also said that, after an hour, the trooper determined that there was no licensed driver in the van and a tow truck needed to be called, creating a further delay. Singal also ruled that the suspected seatbelt violation was a valid reason for the traffic stop and that information about Garcia-Zavala’s immigration status was properly obtained.

Andrews said he will likely appeal the rulings, but that may be determined by whether a plea deal is reached with prosecutors.

Garcia-Zavala was first arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas four years ago for being in the U.S. illegally. He was deported a month after his arrest. Those convicted of illegal re-entry are often sentenced to time served and then deported.

Although he admitted to Burke that he was in the U.S. illegally, and he faces deportation regardless of the outcome of the case, Garcia-Zavala is now fighting the charge to avoid having a felony on his record.


Garcia-Zavala and the other men in the van were living in South Portland and working at an industrial site that was not identified in court documents.

It was not clear how many of the other men faced immigration enforcement actions, although at least some of them were detained.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment on the judge’s ruling.

Andrews said he and Garcia-Zavala will also discuss whether to file a separate suit, alleging his rights were violated by the state trooper.

The video presented in court by Garcia-Zavala’s attorney mostly captures conversations between Burke and Trooper Jay Cooley, in which they can be heard ridiculing the Spanish-speaking passengers and talking about previous traffic stops when Burke called in agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“This is the (expletive) ICE motha load right here,” Burke told Cooley in the video. “Fourteen of ’em. Not one of them speaks English. Drivers – No driver’s licenses. ICE is gonna be coming out here with their (expletive) SWAT team on this one. I just need you to watch them. They’re all (expletive) sketchy as hell.”

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