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Restaurateur faces deportation

Mon., June 4, 2007

A Spokane Valley restaurant owner faces possible deportation to his native Mexico after a confrontational traffic stop that resulted in him being charged with assaulting a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy.

Carlos A. Zuñiga, co-owner of Tacos Tumbras restaurant and two mobile taco stands, was arrested May 19 after Deputy Scott Streltzoff spotted Zuñiga driving his BMW sedan erratically while eastbound on Interstate 90 in Spokane Valley shortly after 2 a.m.

Zuñiga, 44, was booked into the Spokane County Jail that morning on charges of third-degree assault of an officer, driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. A test administered by a Washington State Patrol trooper detected a blood-alcohol level of 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit.

Also charged were Zuñiga’s son and a friend, who arrived in a separate vehicle at the scene of the arrest. They’re facing charges of obstructing Streltzoff as they tried to take cell phone videos of Zuñiga’s arrest and allegedly ignored orders to stand back.

As Zuñiga awaits a deportation hearing in Tacoma, his family struggles to keep the growing restaurant business open.

In 2001, Zuñiga’s brother and partner in Tacos Tumbras, Mario Zuñiga, a naturalized U.S. citizen, petitioned the Immigration and Naturalization Service, forerunner of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for legal residency for Carlos. Such petitions on behalf of siblings receive the lowest priority, according to an ICE spokeswoman, and there is a seven-year waiting list.

In 2003, Zuñiga received a letter from the National Visa Center, advising him of a delay in processing his application for immigration because there were more visa applicants than visas available under the law.

The letter cautioned Zuñiga, who has a wife, Susana, and three adult sons in Spokane Valley, not to make any firm plans, “such as disposing of property, giving up jobs, or making travel arrangements at this time.”

Zuñiga can either accept voluntary deportation or appear before an immigration court to contest his deportation. Many undocumented immigrants choose voluntary deportation, which provides more options should they choose to return to the United States.

Meanwhile, Mario Zuñiga has had to take leave from his full-time job with a landscaping company to help run the business Carlos began three years ago, offering tacos out of a red taco trailer on East Sprague Avenue. In 2005, Tacos Tumbras opened another taco trailer on North Division, and in January opened a restaurant in the former Hula Hut Grill, at 9420 E. Sprague.

Most recently, Zuñiga has been searching for a location for a third taco trailer.

The Zuñiga brothers were born in Mexico City, where Carlos ran a small grocery store before coming to the United States in 1990. He later returned to Mexico but has been living in the United States continuously for the past eight years. Mario arrived in the United States in 1988 and became a citizen in 1997.

On the night of his arrest, Carlos Zuñiga said, he had closed his businesses about 11 p.m. and was giving two employees a ride home. The three of them, wearing Tacos Tumbras uniforms, stopped at Puerto Vallarta restaurant on East Sprague for beer.

When Streltzoff pulled them over, one of the employees called Zuñiga’s son Benjamin, 23, who arrived at the scene – the intersection of Pines and Mission – moments later with a friend, Jonas Perez-Lopez, 27. The two of them complained that Zuñiga did not understand the deputy’s commands, despite the fact Streltzoff is a former Spanish-language interpreter for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department in Southern California.

According to Streltzoff’s report, the young men disobeyed the deputy’s repeated commands to stay back as he was trying to get Carlos Zuñiga into the back of the patrol car. Streltzoff said Zuñiga would not put his legs in the car and attempted to kick him. At this point, according to the deputy’s report, he struck Zuñiga’s legs with a flashlight.

With Zuñiga secure in the patrol car, Streltzoff, assisted by a deputy with a police dog, arrested Benjamin Zuñiga and Perez-Lopez on charges of obstructing a peace officer. After squirting them with pepper spray, Streltzoff confiscated as evidence both their cell phones, with which they had been recording the earlier confrontation between the deputy and the elder Zuñiga.

Carlos Zuñiga said neurological problems prevented him from putting his leg in the car. He, his son and Lopez contend the deputy used excessive force, repeatedly slamming the door of the patrol car on Zuñiga’s leg, which was left black and blue from knee to foot.

An administrative review by the Sheriff’s Office is under way, according to Sgt. Dave Reagan, sheriff’s spokesman. Such reviews are done any time there is an allegation of misuse of authority.

Reagan said electronic recording equipment can be confiscated as material evidence at the scene of an arrest. However, when viewed on Tuesday by detectives, neither cell phone contained images of the arrest.


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