Cost to defend McManus, SAPD in sanctuary cities lawsuit: $258K and counting

Suit accuses chief, department of limiting enforcement of immigration laws

SAN ANTONIO – Invoices released by the city of San Antonio confirm that it has already spent more than a quarter-million dollars defending Chief William McManus, the police department and the city against a lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General's Office late last year.

The suit, filed in Travis County district court in late November, claims McManus limited the enforcement of federal immigration laws in December 2017, when he made the decision to release 12 suspected undocumented immigrants found inside a tractor-trailer on the East Side, instead of handing them over to federal immigration officials.

The invoices, provided to the KSAT 12 Defenders following an open records request, show that as of this week, the city has already been billed $258,725.19 by Austin-based law firm Scott Douglass & McConnico LLP.

The firm's website claims that it specializes in civil trials, appellate cases and administrative proceedings.

"Chief William McManus ordered the release of the immigrants, in violation of Senate Bill 4," said Attorney General Ken Paxton in a videotaped statement released after the suit was filed. "No city in Texas should put the safety of police officers and the public at risk by defying state law."

Paxton's office did not respond to a request to interview him for this story.

"It was the right decision made by Chief McManus. We didn't violate SB 4 and we continue to cooperate with federal authorities," said City Attorney Andy Segovia.

"They are a lot, but I'll tell you why they are a lot. It's a complicated case," said Segovia, referencing the outside legal fees accrued so far.

He pointed out that the suit seeks civil penalties, some of which would be imposed daily, that push the possible award above $10 million.

Segovia acknowledged that it could take a year to 18 months to get a resolution in court.

"We've done more in the first 60 to 90 days than you would ordinarily see in the first six to nine months in litigation. We want to get it resolved," said Segovia.

Ignored agent's offer for assistance

Senate Bill 4, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, remains mostly in effect following a federal appeals court ruling in March 2018.

The law, which attempts to ban sanctuary cities in Texas, requires local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officials, specifically when it pertains to arrested and lawfully detained individuals.

Segovia pointed out that when the December 2017 incident took place, much of the bill had been temporarily halted by a federal judge in San Antonio.

The controversial incident played out in the 3500 block of Copeland Drive, where SAPD officers found 12 people in a tractor-trailer.

McManus himself responded to the scene, and the suspected undocumented immigrants were later taken to Public Safety Headquarters, interviewed and then released.

City officials contend the department released the individuals, which included at least one minor, because it had no legal authority to hold them.

A Homeland Security Investigations officer, identified as Special Agent Brian Johnson, responded to the scene and then to public safety headquarters, and claimed in a written report that his repeated attempts to have the suspected undocumented immigrants turned over to federal immigration authorities were denied.

The four-page report, released last summer, also states that Johnson's offer to help interview the individuals was ignored, even though he is fluent in Spanish.

HSI Special Agent Brian Johnson report of human smuggling incident

Delayed justice

The driver of the semitrailer, Herbert Nichols, was taken into custody at the scene and charged under a seldom-used state smuggling of persons statute.

He is now free on bond.

The criminal case against Nichols remains pending, a spokesperson for the Bexar County District Attorney's Office confirmed last week.

Records show there have been no public updates in the case in over a year.

Segovia referred questions about the criminal case to the DA's Office, but acknowledged that his staff is concerned that Nichols may not be brought to justice for the trailer incident.

"We the city don't control whether somebody is prosecuted or not," said Segovia.

McManus' decision to handle the Copeland incident as a state case has faced additional scrutiny due to how two other high-profile smuggling cases in San Antonio have played out.

James Bradley, the driver of the tractor-trailer in which 10 people died during a human-smuggling operation in south San Antonio in July 2017, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Gerardo Carreon, the driver of a tractor-trailer found in the 8400 block of Laurelcrest along with more than 50 suspected undocumented immigrants last summer, is currently serving a 70-month prison sentence after pleading guilty in federal court last year.

In that case, which happened six months after the Copeland trailer incident, federal immigration officials took custody of both Carreon and the undocumented immigrants at the scene.

SAPD officials referred questions from the Defenders about the lawsuit to the city attorney's office.

The next hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for April 30 in Austin.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.