A federal civil rights investigation has been launched into the case of Santa Ana resident Edgar Vargas, whose beating by local police this summer was caught on video, according to an FBI spokeswoman.
"I can now confirm that we have an investigation open into whether Vargas' civil rights were violated," the spokeswoman, Ari Dekofsky, said Tuesday.
"But as it is a pending investigation I'll have to decline any further comment," she added.
As part of the investigation, Vargas was declared a material witness by U.S. Department of Justice officials and released from immigration detention last week, said his public defender, Frank Bittar.
Vargas' deportation proceedings have also been put on hold, he added.
“They’re concerned enough to cause Edgar not to be removed from the country,” Bittar told Voice of OC on Monday.
Meanwhile, the Orange County District Attorney's Office has dropped four of the five charges it filed against Vargas following his altercation with police on June 20. The dropped charges include: battery upon a peace officer, inflicting great bodily harm, resisting a police officer, and unlawful tampering with a vehicle.
Bittar said probe by the regional FBI and U.S. attorney's offices comes after he sent a complaint to the FBI seeking an investigation of Santa Ana police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I’m heartened by the responsible federal agencies, which means that the system does work when obviously the local agencies here are challenged by doing the right thing,” he added.
Asked via email whether ICE is under investigation as part of the probe, spokeswoman Virginia Kice replied: “ICE has no involvement in the case you reference below. I believe the civil rights case is being spearheaded by the FBI.”
Vargas’ arrest attracted national media attention after video footage showed him place his hands up and lie face down in a front yard before officers punched him repeatedly and swung a baton at his legs:
Police said they confronted Vargas after a receiving a burglary call and that he attacked the officers. But after the DA's action on Monday, only the attempted burglary charge remains.
Santa Ana police spokesman Cpl. Anthony Bertagna didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.
ICE agents arrested Vargas on Aug. 18, while he was on his way to court to face the charges. Kice said the arrest was “based solely upon his case history, which includes two prior deportations and multiple felony convictions.”
It wasn’t until the DA’s office learned that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI were investigating that they decided to drop most of the charges, Bittar said.
“Unfortunately this didn’t have to happen if the DA’s office had just done the right thing and dismissed these false charges from the beginning,” he said.
District attorney spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder declined a request for an interview about the case on Monday.
In his federal complaint, Bittar said the police officers were guilty of, among other things, police brutality, excessive force and falsifying police reports.
“Santa Ana police officers beat Mr. Arzate," he wrote, using the name Vargas is identified by in court records.
"The Orange County District Attorney’s office filed serious charges against him despite the overwhelming evidence that he did not assault nor injure anyone. Indeed, Mr. Arzate was victimized by these officers and yet the charges against him are still pending," Bittar wrote.
(Click here to read the complaint.)
In his complaint, Bittar also suggested that Vargas’ arrest by ICE agents was part of an effort to prevent him from exposing police brutality in court.
Kice, meanwhile, reiterated that the arrest was based only on Vargas' criminal record.
Justice Department apparently intervened last week, with Vargas being released to his family on Wednesday. His next court date is Jan. 14, for a pre-trial hearing in room C57 at Superior Court in Santa Ana.
Vargas’ sister said her family is relieved to have him back, adding that he hasn't been himself since the beating and six weeks in federal detention.
“We’re really happy that he’s here with us,” Sareth Vargas said Monday night.