Judge Kent's Bench in the Galveston Federal Courthouse
Judge Kent’s Bench in the Galveston Federal Courthouse

 

About twelve years before Judge Kent was reprimanded by the 5th Circuit, on September 9, 1994, attorneys Gerald Birnberg and Jerry Patchen sat at the defendants table with Belarmino Sanchez, a thirty-seven year old Galveston Police Officer who was waiting to be sentenced for using his position as a law enforcement officer to sexually assault prostitutes he came across on his beat. In the six-count indictment, Mr. Sanchez gave the women a choice: either they performed various sex acts on or with him, or he would arrest them for prostitution or frame them for drug or firearm possession. On one occasion, Mr. Sanchez had been dispatched to help a woman by the name of Irene James who had had an altercation with her boyfriend while in the presence of her young son. Mr. Sanchez put Ms. James and her son in his patrol car, dropped her son off at his grandmother’s house, assured Ms. James’ mother and anxious son that he was driving Ms. James to the hospital for treatment and instead drove Ms. James to a deserted area where he told her to “suck his penis.” When she declined and told him she wanted to go home, he told her to shut up, “helped” Ms. James take off her clothes and sexually assaulted her. The presiding judge in this case was Samuel B. Kent.

In the Fifth Circuit opinion, Mr. Sanchez’s conduct was correctly described as follows: “Sanchez was a Galveston police officer assigned to patrol an area that city frequented by prostitutes and bustling with illicit drug activity. While patrolling this area between September and November of 1992, Sanchez allegedly used the threat of arrest to force five suspected prostitutes to engage in various sexual acts with him against their will.” Below represents some of Judge Kent’s remarks at Mr. Sanchez’s sentencing hearing.

“This is not a situation where the Defendant was in the process of lawful arrest, some sort of elicit, insidious offer was made, some compromise, some quid pro quo. The Defendant in this case, in this Court’s perception, acted throughout the transgressions involved in this case a a predator. He picked these people. He singled them out and went about the business in a cold and calculated way, deciding who he would use as his victims and who he would not.”

“I will say next before proceeding to my formal remarks, that this has been without a doubt the most troublesome case I have dealt with in my four years on the bench. There’s nothing about this case that this court likes at all. It has been an exceedingly difficult case to contemplate, and I want to assure you that I have spent the last several weeks actively and thoughtfully considering this case, reviewing the pleadings, reviewing all of the letters and the materials that have been submitted to the court and the like. Reaching even a predictable result in this case has been by no means an easy moral decision.”

“The Court will momentarily pronounce sentence, but before doing so, feels constrained to make some observations for the benefit of the defendant, his counsel, the appellate record, and most importantly, the citizens of the district and division over which this Court presides and all law enforcement officers similarly situated. The court does not intend these remarks to be any sort of lecture to the defendant. Indeed, the court feels rather strongly that if this defendant were amenable to any sort of lecture, he would not now be facing sentencing following six criminal convictions. Indeed, the court will confine itself to its perception of the merits of this case and it’s implications for society.

“When a police officer gets up in the morning, he or she goes about the business of preparation for daily activities like any other person. Breakfast is prepared, the paper is read, and the necessary wares and tools of the occupation are set out and readied for use. However, even upon dressing, the significance of that officer’s duties and responsibilities veer sharply from those of the average citizen. When a police officer dons his or her uniform, that officer is not just cloaked with the insignia and required clothing of the department he or she serves. More importantly, the officer is thereupon cloaked within mantle of high honor and responsibility, setting that officer distinctly apart from all other citizens.

“The President of the United States, Congresspersons and Senators and indeed Judges wield enormous power and have immense responsibility in our constitutional system of government. However, with the sole exception of the President, himself, in the capacity of Command-in-Chief, none of these individuals has the relatively absolute and immediate authority bestowed upon him or her as does a typical street police officer. Unique in our civilian society, police officers are armed with deadly weapons and are fully and completely authorized to exercise deadly force in the proper execution of their responsibilities. A cop on the beat, at least in terms of on the spot activities, has virtually absolute authority in his or her neighborhood. Altercations are resolved, disputes are settled, and transgressions are dealt with in innumerable circumstances regarding subjective judgment, intelligence, and compassion from the beat cop. It is solely within that officer’s discretion to detain, arrest, or otherwise endlessly complicate the lives and well-being of those with whom the officer interacts. The beat cop has not only absolute primary discretion over the mere release or detention of individuals, but indeed in numerous circumstances, profound authority over the life or death of those individuals. This is an awesome entrustment of power and responsibility and should only be accepted and executed with due reverence for the confidence and trust that society places in our police system.

“It is important for this court to note that the absolutely overwhelming number of men and women employed in police work in the United States go about their duties on a daily basis with pride, intelligence, deep compassion, and a profound sense of commitment. This court wholeheartedly applauds the efforts of each and every one of these fine men and women, who give of themselves daily on a level that most private citizens simply cannot comprehend. Speaking just of the communities making up the district and division over which this Court presides, this court will readily observed that most police officers with whom this court has had contact are highly professional and utterly trustworthy. Most of these people are grossly underpaid for the heroic work they do and this court sometimes wonders how these individuals maintain their dignity, enthusiasm, and sense of humor against a backdrop of the vile conduct with which they must daily contend. On the other hand, this Court has unfortunately also had isolated instances brought to its attention of individuals who are wholly and completely unsuited for the important work of police, and this court utterly embraces the notion that there is nothing more terrifying in an organized society than a rogue cop.

“While this Court absolutely frowns upon criminal conduct of any kind, there is at least something frank and unambiguous about a common criminal who makes no pretense about the plying of his or her craft. The drug dealer, common thief, forger, and pickpocket are there for the world to see. They make no bones or apologies, generally, about the unsavory work they engage in, and borrowing the time-worn phrase, “What you see is what you get.” On the other hand, this court views illegal police conduct as being akin to treason. Cloaked with the awesome mantle of power, honor, and responsibility with which society imbues its police, the rogue cop uses that mantle as a cloak of evil, basely and perversely using his or her power and responsibility for utterly selfish and craven gain. There is absolutely no place in a constitutionally routed society for such conduct, and this court considers such conduct to be as offensive is any criminal conduct can be.

“Turning to the merits of this case, the Court notes it’s profound unhappiness with every aspect of the case. The excellent Galveston Police Department was needlessly dragged through the mud and was required to expend huge and precious resources ferreting out one of its own. The perpetrator was once a fine a police officer and a combat veteran with a distinguished record. At some point, and for reason simply unknown to this Court, Officer Sanchez turned his back on his own past and chose a path not only of his own destruction, but of incalculable pain and consternation to his victims and the society he swore to protect and serve as well.

“The victims in this case appeared to the Court to be victims in every sense of the word. Virtually every one of these individuals came from a troubled past, which has resulted in their participation in prostitution, drug use, and a host of other unsavory activities. As if matters were not bad enough for any of them, they were then subjected to rape and or sodomization by on-duty police officer, at least one in violent circumstances and at least one in appallingly abusive circumstances. The court will readily concede that none of the victims in this case are individuals who should be singled out for commendation based on their life and activity choices. However, their intrinsic value as human beings is a moral judgment left to a much higher court then this one, and this Court offers absolutely no judgment on whether these individuals may be construed as proper or otherwise.

“What the court does note without question is that none of them deserved to be raped or sodomized by an active-duty police officer of the Galveston Police Department in a squad car provided by that very department. It is been intimated in varying contexts in this case that these individuals are not worthy of the complete consideration of this court. However, the court vigorously disagrees. Indeed, this court firmly believes that the greatest hallmark of any society is not the manner in which it protects the vested rights of the most powerful among its membership, but the manner in which it demonstrates compassion and caring for its least fortunate members.

“Under the United States Constitution all person standing equal in a court of justice and all persons are to be accorded equal dignity and consideration. The prostitute and the philanthropist stand equally before this court and will be treated fairly here.

“Similarly, this defendant’s conduct must be measured against the backdrop of what is expected of police officers and not simply because he picked victims whom he felt possessed stigmata which entitled him to cynically view them merely as prey.

“The Court received a substantial number of letters on behalf of the defendant. The Court has carefully read them and they are made a part of the record for all purposes. Normally, the corporate appreciate such letters and is generally touched by them, and that was certainly true of some of these, but many of the letters deeply troubled the court. Many suggested evil motives on the part of the complaining witnesses and defendant’s innocence. Unfortunately, none of this was offered in the trial of the case where the jury could have scrutinized it in the cold light of this tribunal. Many others suggested incredulity at the charges against the defendant, but these show only that the defendant had developed a terrifying ability to lead a double life. Others suggest the distressing consequences of any sentence upon the defendant’s family. While in sympathy for the loved ones of any criminally accused, this Court flatly refuses to accept responsibility for such consequences. The fault for those problems lies squarely at the feet of the defendant, who should have thought about them when he was perpetrating his numerous crimes.

“It is imperative to note that the defendant refuses to admit his guilt as regards any of these defenses. Indeed, he takes absolutely no responsibility for these crimes whatsoever. He remains utterly unrepentant even to the present moment, as regards any of these genuinely serious incidents.

“The defendant was a Galveston police officer with more than 14 years of experience at the time these offenses began. To suggest that he did not know better than to commit these crimes is absolutely preposterous. He took an oath to support and defend the laws of the constitution of this great nation, and by his conduct, he forsook that oath utterly. He was on duty at the time of each of these offenses, in uniform, fully armed, and in a Galveston police patrol unit. There was not even the faintest suggestion of complicity by any of the victims or even sort of quid pro quo arrangement or implied or suggested consent. These were willful and brutal sexual assaults born out of the Defendant’s lust, absolute contempt for the most basic rights of his victims and totally perverted view of the breadth and reach of his power.

“Apparently the defendant picked victims he thought would not fight back. Apparently, he thought his victims would be viewed cynically would not be believed. Apparently, he thought that he could abuse society and the trust placed in him with impunity. Apparently, he thought that our constitutional government and indeed our whole system of justice in the United States was so incompetent and uncaring that his heinous acts would go unpunished. Indeed, he apparently assumed that even if caught and prosecuted, his punishment would be nominal, given the allegedly unsavory characteristics of his purported victims.”

“The court cannot conceive of and does not speculate upon his motivation for these appalling crimes. It has been suggested that defendant had a number of emotional problems and traumatic events to deal with, but so do most people and this is never an excuse for criminal conduct.”

“At the same time the court has an obligation to send a clear and unambiguous message to every single police officer in every single community over which this Court presides, this conduct will not be tolerated. Our trust in you is profound. If you violate that trust, there will be unequivocal circumstances.”

In its sentencing memorandum, the Government described Sanchez’s conduct as follows: “The defendant used his position as a law enforcement officer to sexually assault women he knew were powerless and vulnerable, who would not complaint about his actions, and who would not be believed if they did. The defendant violated the law, abused the trust placed in him by the community, and dishonored his badge and his department.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to participate in the Bureau of Prison’s sex offender program.