U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested the driver of the vehicle involved in the fatal crash which took the lives of two law enforcement officers on I-270 in December of last year.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Justine Whelan confirmed that on Thursday, May 3, ICE officers arrested 28-year-old Roberto A. Garza Palacios at his residence in Maryland. Whelan identified Garza Palacios as an “unlawfully present Guatemalan national” and said he was taken into custody and charged with violating the terms and conditions of his work visa after overstaying the authorized period of stay in 2009.
On Tuesday, May 1, Maryland State Police announced that traffic charges had been filed against Garza Palacios, who was identified as the driver of the vehicle involved in the December 8, 2017 collision on I-270 which resulted in the deaths of Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Sander Cohen and FBI Special Agent Carlos Wolff.
The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, determined Garza Palacios was to be charged with negligent driving, a violation of Transportation Article 21-901.1(b), said the Maryland State Police in a press release. When contributing to an accident, this charge carries a penalty of a $280 fine and three points. Garza Palacios met with State Police at the Rockville Barrack in mid-April and was issued the citation. Signing the citation is not an admission of guilt.
The Maryland State Police initially said that Garza Palacios was a Germantown resident, however, the Washington Post who first reported his arrest by ICE stated that Garza Palacios was arrested in home on Belle Grove Road in Gaithersburg on Thursday.
It seems Garza Palacios has moved around quite a bit and had numerous run-ins with law enforcement during the time he has been living Maryland. According court records, he was charged with two traffic violations in May of 2015. At that time he was living in Montgomery Village. He was ticketed for the same negligent driving violation for which he was charged after the December crash which killed Cohen and Wolff. He was also charged with failure to obey traffic control device instructions. He pleaded guilty to both those charges, and subsequently had his driver’s license suspended for failure to pay the traffic tickets. His driving privilege was suspended from June 22, 2015 until November 20, 2015.
According to Whelan, ICE officers had previously encountered Garza Palacios in August 2015 and lodged a detainer with Montgomery County Detention Center following Garza’s arrest on local charges. “Garza Palacios was subsequently released from custody without notification to ICE,” said Whelan in an email to Germantown Pulse.
On June 12, 2015, Garza Palacios was arrested on 16 counts of Malicious Destruction of Property, according to Maryland Case Search.
The Washington Post article said the Garza Palacios was accused of destroying 16 windows with a metal bar and setting a sofa on fire. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of Malicious Destruction and was sentenced to 364 days in jail with all but 88 days suspended, and two years of supervised probation. At this time, he was living in Mount Airy in an area just south of I-70.
It was while serving time in the Montgomery County Detention Center that ICE officers lodged the detainer for Garza Palacios in August of 2015. However, ICE was not notified of his release.
Two years later, in August of 2017 Garza Palacios was arrested in Montgomery County for Possession of Controlled Dangerous Substance, but the charges were eventually dropped by the prosecutor.
Robert Green, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, told the Washington Post that the August 2015 Ice detainer request lacked sufficient probable cause from ICE, and Garza Palacios was released.
On January 30, 2017 the Montgomery County Executive and County Council issued a joint statement reading “Montgomery County is committed to building and maintaining a safe and inclusive community for our residents. Understanding, tolerance, and respect are hallmarks of the Montgomery County way. Social justice for all is what we strive to achieve in our County.”
The statement went on to read, “It is longstanding County policy that County police do not enforce federal immigration law. Neither will they inquire about immigration status when individuals are stopped nor target individuals based on their ethnicity, race, or religious beliefs.”
“The County’s law enforcement leaders are also committed to our values, and they will continue working to build trust in our community. Police Chief Tom Manger, Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Rob Green, Sheriff Darren Popkin, and State’s Attorney John McCarthy are sworn to protect the rights of all residents and to treat all individuals equally.”
The statement issued by the County officials came in response to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25, 2017 Executive Order on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.”
The statement from County leaders continued, “Your County leaders stand ready to take the steps necessary to defend our values and maintain the integrity of our community. Executive orders are not self-executing. They require additional actions by federal agencies to be implemented. In addition, executive orders are subject to public scrutiny and legal challenges.”
The crash on southbound I-270 occurred about 10:00 pm on December 8, 2017, just north of Falls Road. Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Cohen was off-duty and driving south on I-270 when he came upon Special Agent Wolff’s personal vehicle disabled in the travel lane. He immediately called the Maryland State Police Rockville Barrack for assistance and blocked the damaged vehicle with his own, while activating his emergency flashers in an attempt to safeguard the scene. The actions of Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Cohen placed him in an official on-duty status at that time.
Both Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Cohen and Special Agent Wolff moved to the shoulder of the fast lane. The investigation showed a southbound 2000 Honda Accord, driven by Garza Palacios, swerved to the left of the stopped vehicles because he was unable to move to the right due to traffic. The Honda struck both men as they stood on the highway shoulder. Both victims were thrown over the jersey wall to the northbound side of I-270.
Garza Palacios stopped his vehicle just south of the crash and remained at the scene. The investigation found that alcohol, drugs and speed were not factors in this crash.
Photos courtesy MCFRS.