WASHINGTON - Border Patrol agents should be allowed to shoot at fleeing drug traffickers, a Republican senator suggested Tuesday.
The patrol's deadly force rules were questioned at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the conviction of two agents who shot a fleeing, unarmed drug trafficker and covered it up.
"Why is it wrong to shoot the (trafficker) after he's been told to stop?" asked Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the Supreme Court has ruled that using deadly force in that way is illegal. Agents also may not know if the fleeing person is a trafficker, he said.
Agents can return fire to defend themselves, their partners or other people, Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said.
Former agents Ignacio Ramos and Alonso Compean are serving 11- and 12-year federal prison sentences, respectively, for the 2005 shooting of drug trafficker Osvaldo Aldrete Davila on the Texas border near El Paso.
Two other agents involved in the incident have been fired and one was forced to resign, Aguilar said.
The agents' convictions and tough sentences have become a cause celebre on talk radio and among some members of Congress. Some lawmakers want President Bush to commute the agents' sentences.
"I think this is a case of prosecutorial overreaction," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the only Democrat at the hearing.
But Sutton defended the prosecution
"Border Patrol agents are American heroes. They arrest 1 million people a year. Somehow they are able to do that without shooting people in the back," he said.
Feinstein said she wants to change a law used by Sutton that required the agents receive at least 10 years for firing their weapons.
Sutton acknowledged it was unwise to have given Aldrete a visa that allowed him to enter the U.S. freely while he was cooperating with investigators.