U.S. District Court

Honduran TL dealer sentenced in fast track federal scheme

A young Honduran drug dealer was sentenced in federal court today, one month after being arrested in the Tenderloin, under a fast track scheme designed rapidly to arrest, convict and deport low-level drug offenders who are foreign nationals.

18 year old Candy Celeste Cardona-Zuniga was detained on August 2 by Drug Enforcement Agency agents having been covertly observed making ‘hand to hand’ drug transactions on Eddy Street between Larkin and Polk Streets.

She was sentenced to a ‘time served’ sentence of 28 days having pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer to possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.

The judge signed a release order on the bench having been assured by the government that it was their expectation that the Department of Homeland Security would move immediately to detain and deport her.

“This disposition results in a drug trafficking conviction within weeks of arrest (not months or years), immediate separation of the defendant from the Tenderloin, and prevention of the defendant from returning to the Tenderloin,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Karmel in a sentencing memorandum.

“The speed at which this case moved will free up other government resources to prosecute additional federal crimes, including in the Tenderloin.”

On arrest, Ms Cardona-Zuniga was found with 148 grams on fentanyl and 52 grams of heroin. As a condition of her plea, she had agreed to remain in custody – in effect not to challenge her custody status – over the past month.

“It is the judgment of the court that the defendant is committed to the custody of Bureau of Prisons for a period of time served,” said Judge Breyer.

Whether the defendant will be detained and deported remains an open question given an earlier case in the same courtroom where the judge took the Department of Homeland Security to task for a failure to deport.

Alejandro Cruz-Ortiz appeared, out of custody, for sentencing having pleaded guilty in January 2023 to one count of illegal reentering of the United States.

The court was told that the defendant had been deported from the country to Mexico on four occasions but had returned each time. This time, after being located in Santa Rosa county in June 2019, and having an immigration detainer placed on him, immigration authorities did not deport him.

Instead, years later, federal prosecutors brought a charge of illegal entry and asked the court to sentence Cruz-Ortiz to three years imprisonment.

A frustrated Judge Breyer took the view that the U.S. Attorney’s Office were expecting the federal courts to do a job that was properly the responsibility of immigration officials at the Department of Homeland Security. That they manifestly failed to do it in this case oughtn’t to mean the judiciary had to.

“This case presents the issue, in the Court’s mind, that the Department of Homeland Security apparently did not, in the last go around, deport the defendant, have I got that right?” asked the judge.

“He shouldn’t have come back [but] he should have been deported, that’s your fault not mine,” he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Danbee Kim.

“It’s up to the immigration service to do what they think given the circumstances.”

“It’s their decision and they shouldn’t use the courts as a vehicle to punish somebody for their failure to deport. That’s the executive branch – it’s nothing to do with the judiciary…we’re not the handmaiden of the executive branch. Let them do what they think is warranted.”

“These cases, which are essentially administrative cases which clog the courts because, in fairness, you don’t do your job. You don’t do your job. The Department of Justice doesn’t do it.”

The judge took pains to observe that he wasn’t saying one way or another what he thought immigration policy should be, and that he recognized each element of the judicial system had an important role to play.

He sentenced Cruz-Ortiz to three years of probation.

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