State prosecutors in North Carolina offered a plea deal and freed a suspected drug trafficker after it was revealed that a DEA agent forced the Mexican-born man to pose for a photo wearing a sombrero and holding a Mexican flag.
(The picture above is a graphical representation of a sombrero and Mexico's flag.)
"It was certainly very humiliating to my client," said attorney Jeff Cutler, who represents Jorge Hernandez-Villalvazo, 42, who was originally scheduled to stand trial on cocaine trafficking charges this week.
When Cutler asked the prosecution for a copy of the photo, which was not entered into evidence, his client Villalvazo was "very quickly" offered a plea deal, which allowed him to avoid a possible 20-year sentence.
"What purpose does this serve?" asked Professor Deborah Weissman, the director of immigration and human rights clinical programs at the University of North Carolina Law School. "It is a horrendous abuse of power to humiliate, and it is an improper disclosure of evidence."
DEA spokesperson Ruth Porter-Whipple told ABC News the photo was taken but "no longer exists," and "the matter was being looked into." When asked to identify the agent or agents responsible for taking the photo, she said it was the agency's policy not to disclose any agents' names under any circumstances.
"The photo was the primary reason for the [plea] offer," said Cutler, who said he had told the government he was prepared to use the photo at time of trial. "I can't see it being taken in any other way than being racially motivated," he told ABC News.
Villalvazo could not be reached for comment, but Cutler said his client, who faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the cocaine charges, has always maintained his innocence.