A former state representative remains angry and baffled at the treatment he received at the hands of local and federal law enforcement Friday morning during a traffic stop in South Texas.
Aaron Peña was pulled over in Robstown, outside of Corpus Christi, for expired license plates. After being questioned by local police officers as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Robstown police impounded his vehicle and wrote him a ticket for lacking proof of automobile insurance, a charge Mr. Peña disputes.
“I don’t mind that they pulled me over,” said Peña, a Republican from Edinburg. “I don’t mind that they gave me a ticket. I do mind with great personal offense that they treated me like a drug dealer and accused me of lying.”
Peña was driving a 2001 Dodge pickup he said he had purchased within the previous two weeks. He had planned to drive it home to Edinburg so his son could take it with him when he starts college. Peña had expected to address the vehicle’s expired license plate once he got to South Texas. He had considered the possibility that the plates might get him pulled over but figured he would, if needed, explain to a police officer the situation and risk getting a ticket.
While driving down U.S. Highway 77, Peña was pulled over in Robstown. A Robstown police officer directed him to get out of his pickup. Peña complied. He was wearing dress pants and dress shoes and a campaign T-shirt for Attorney General Greg Abbott, who just kicked off his gubernatorial campaign. Peña had introduced Abbott at a campaign event earlier in the week.
Within minutes of Peña getting out of his vehicle, he noticed that the two Robstown officers had been joined by at least two other officers. They were not in uniform, but Peña said he could tell they were with the Department of Homeland Security by the badges they wore on chains around their necks. A police spokesman confirmed that the men were with ICE.
“There was a point where I sensed that I was surrounded,” Peña said. “I asked if this was bigger than a traffic stop. One of them says ‘You tell me.’”
Sgt. Albert Stout, a spokesman with the Robstown Police Department, said officers followed the law during the traffic stop with Peña.
“The reason his car was impounded was because he didn’t have any insurance and his plates were expired," Stout said.
Stout said the Robstown Police Department is currently working with ICE on a task force related to organized crime that involves policing traffic moving through the area.
“We’re trying to locate stolen vehicles, stolen properties, wanted people, money carriers, drug carriers,” Stout said.
Peña was driving from Austin to South Texas that morning on his way to a few different appointments. He had a meeting in Harlingen with a member of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s staff. He was later expected at an event with George P. Bush, son of the former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a Republican running for land commissioner.
Peña said he did not want to receive special treatment but also did not want to appear like he was hiding something from them.
“I said I used to be a state representative and now I work for a public relations firm,” Peña said. (Peña served in the Legislature from 2003 to 2013 representing a South Texas district based in Edinburg. In 2010, he left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party.)
Peña gave the officers permission to search his car. They did not find anything, he said.
As he answered their questions and provided them with more information about him, the officers grew more confrontational, Peña said. They used the word “suspicious” repeatedly and accused him of lying. They were suspicious that Peña worked in Austin but still lived in South Texas. They were suspicious that Peña went by his middle name “Aaron” instead of his first name, “Lionel.” They were suspicious of the tan color of the bed liner in his pickup.
At one point, Peña showed them his state-issued concealed handgun license to prove he was not a felon. He assured them he was not armed. Peña was stunned at their response.
“They said it was really suspicious that I have a CHL but don’t have a gun,” Peña said.
Peña, a former member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he guessed the officers’ superiors could probably vouch for his identity. He explained to them that he works regularly with Homeland Security and law enforcement throughout South Texas.
“They obviously thought I was some sort of drug mule or something because they were afraid of me,” Peña said. “I tried to tell them, ‘Guys, you can call your local officials in Robstown area or Corpus Christi area and they will know who I am. You just got to make a call.’”
Instead, Peña said the officers told him they were going to impound his car because he didn’t have insurance. Peña explained he had insurance but that this car was not listed on the policy yet. Peña argued that he was still legally insured. The officers disagreed.
Peña got a ride to the impound lot with the tow truck. In order to get back his pickup, Peña said he had to pay $226.65 to get the car released and another $50 for a month’s worth of insurance coverage for the vehicle from a business near the impound lot.
“I am extra covered now,” Peña quipped ruefully.
Stout declined to comment on how the officers questioned Peña. Despite the presence of ICE agents, Stout said Peña's immigration status was not an issue.
“They were extremely disrespectful,” Peña said. “They legitimately could have pulled me over. They legitimately could have given me a ticket for not having insurance, even though they are legally wrong about that. It’s the way they manhandled me and treated me like a felon.”
Asked if he would file a compliant about the incident, Peña said he did not know. What he was more certain of was that the experience has prompted him to re-examine the way law enforcement is interacting with people in his state, particularly in South Texas, where combating drug traffic is considered a high priority.
“They assumed I was guilty, and they expected me to prove that I was innocent,” Peña said.
Peña said he missed his meeting with a member of Cornyn’s office but made a later public event with Bush. He made a point of taking a photo with him and Bush standing next to a U.S. flag to post on Twitter.