Padilla’s DOJ Nominee No Friend to Our Community—or His Own

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Rev. K.W. Tulloss

Junior U.S. Senator Alex Padilla of California had over a year to consider one of the most critical decisions in his brief career in Washington: who to nominate for U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California—a district that serves the largest population in the United States and includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties.

After all, in this era of George Floyd and racial protests, when institutionalized discrimination and police brutality has never been more apparent, communities of color, specifically the Black Community, have a right to expect a nominee for one of the most important law enforcement positions in the country to reflect a desire to turn the page on America’s terrible racist legacy.

But in one of the strangest and most disheartening decisions in recent memory, Padilla has instead chosen E. Martin Estrada, a Bush-era foot soldier in the war on drugs who made his bones destroying the lives of mainly low-level black drug offenders.

California Democratic leaders and justice reform advocates should be demanding the White House reconsider Padilla’s nominee. Why? Because Padilla’s choice of Estrada is not meant to serve the needs of his constituents or to send a message of hope to vulnerable communities. Instead, it’s intended to serve the needs of his biggest political donors, namely, police unions and prison guards.

Since 2006, Alex Padilla has taken over a quarter of million dollars from police unions and prison guards—money that has fueled his rise from the L.A. City Council to the U.S. Senate. In exchange, they expect the continued escalation of the war on vulnerable communities of color. They expect more prison beds, more harsh drug laws, not less, and they expect to smother any attempts at police, prison, sentencing, and bail reform in their cribs. They expect Padilla to keep the prison industrial complex humming and the school-to-prison pipeline full of young black men.

Taken in this context, Padilla’s choice of E. Martin Estrada, the Bush-era drug warrior with a record of targeting and prosecuting communities of color, is tailor made to deliver precisely the kind of “justice” his political donors expect—keeping black and brown brothers down while keeping multi-billion-dollar law enforcement budgets up.

How do we know Estrada will do the bidding of Padilla and his police backers? One look at his extensive record tells the tale.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Estrada served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) in Los Angeles from June 2007 to September 2014, during which time he “prosecuted hundreds of criminal cases including “drug trafficking.”

At the same time, in December 2007, President Bush touted “our country’s fight against illegal drugs” as a “battle” against “an unrelenting evil that ruins families, endangers neighborhoods, and stalks our children.” Estrada was more than willing to take up his call to action, no matter who paid the price.

      Take the case of USA v. Dewayne Donelson, who was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury in March 2009 for distributing 12.6 grams of crack cocaine in Los Angeles County. Court documents describe how Donelson sold 12.6 grams—less than half an ounce—of crack cocaine to an FBI Informant in Inglewood in March 2009 for $800. Donelson pleaded guilty, and the court initially gave Donelson a sentence of 24 months. Believing two years in a federal prison wasn’t enough, Estrada successfully appealed Donelson’s sentence to the Ninth Circuit, at which point the court resentenced Donelson to 63 months in prison. That’s over five years in jail for less than half an ounce of crack cocaine.

Around this time, in October 2007, the ACLU criticised the 100-to-1 mandatory minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine as “unsound in theory and racially discriminatory in practice,” as “African Americans constituted more than 80% of those sentenced to federal prison for crack cocaine offenses, even though two-thirds of crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic.”

Let’s now look at another of Estrada’s troubling drug prosecutions. From 2007-to 2008, Estrada represented the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the federal criminal case USA v. Keith McAdoo, who prosecutors charged with multiple drug and firearms charges, including “Possession with Intent to Distribute Cocaine Base in the Form of Crack Cocaine.”

Estrada’s criminal complaint against McAdoo stated that McAdoo was arrested by LAPD because he fit the description from an informant of “a black male with a light complexion…involved in the sales of large quantities of cocaine base.” McAdoo filed a motion to suppress the evidence, alleging that LAPD officers had illegally pulled him over while driving without probable cause and then illegally searched an apartment without a warrant where drugs and weapons were found.

Estrada filed an opposition brief in response to McAdoo’s Motion to Suppress, arguing that officers had “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity “because officers had seen the defendant driving without a seatbelt.” Thankfully, the judge in the case granted McAdoo’s motion, agreeing that officers did not have probable cause.

Is this the kind of prosecutor L.A. needs? Someone who knows the racial inequities built into our outdated drug laws but who still enforces them to the hilt? Someone who defends the police regardless of their misconduct, in clear violation of the constitution, and who argues probable cause for a drug search of one’s car and home because of failure to wear a seatbelt? Would Estrada have done the same to a white defendant?

America is the largest prison colony on earth, with over two million souls incarcerated, more than the rest of the world combined. But this situation didn’t happen all by itself. It’s not just a racist, unjust system of laws that create this obscene situation in our nation. Instead, it’s career prosecutors like Estrada who should know better but who pursue these policies anyway.

One can only hope that when the truth about Estrada’s record and Padilla’s self-serving motivations for the selection comes out, social justice advocates and elected officials in our community will do what they can to stop Estrada, who’s simply the wrong man at the wrong time for U.S. Attorney in the Central District.


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