Charges against state trooper show track record of unprofessionalismby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
WOODBURY, Minn. — The Minnesota State Patrol sergeant at the helm of a suspended drug training program has a documented track record of unprofessionalism.
Sgt. Rick Munoz may not be implicated in the most recent scandal, in which law enforcement officers in a training class for the Drug Recognition Evaluator program were accused of distributing marijuana to members of the public. A charging decision in the case could come as early as this week, said the Hennepin County Attorney's office.
But documents obtained by MPR News show Munoz was reprimanded as a trooper for belittling citizens, jailing a motorist for no reason, and humiliating the people he was supposed to help.
One of the most jaw-dropping accounts of Munoz' unprofessional behavior comes from April Carrillo, 22, who was stopped for speeding in August 2011.
"I was speeding, I admit I was speeding," recalled Carrillo in a recent interview.
Carrillo was driving her boyfriend's family from Rochester to their home in Moorhead. Her boyfriend's sister was just released from the Mayo Clinic after having two hip-replacement surgeries.
Carrillo recalls she was cruising along Highway 52through rural Dakota County, near Hampton, and did not realize she was driving 21 miles over the speed limit.
Munoz, then a trooper assigned to the East Metro, stopped her on the side of the highway. After checking a temporary registration permit in her rear window, Munoz was convinced the permit was fake.
"He just kept pushing the issue, kept pushing it, kept pushing it, saying it was fake," Carrillo said.
The registration document for the recently purchased car was, in fact, legitimate. But Munoz insisted that the car be towed and impounded. Carillo said Munoz ordered the family, including the member recuperating from her surgeries, to get out of the car with all of their personal belongings.
"He didn't seem like he cared what we were going through, or what my sister-in-law was going through. Pretty much, he wanted the car towed, and that's it," Carillo said. "No matter how much I was crying, or how much we were begging him to listen to us, he just didn't care."
The family did not have a wheelchair. Carrillo's boyfriend had to carry his sister out of the car. They camped out at a gas station restaurant for several hours, stranded in a town where they knew no one, and watched a tow truck haul the car away. The owner of the restaurant eventually drove the family to a hotel eight miles away in Cannon Falls so they could wait for their ride that was coming from Moorhead.
On top of it all, Carrillo recalls Munoz shaming her for crying.
"He goes, 'Why are you crying? You seem like you have something to hide. You must be crying for a reason," Carrillo said.
An internal affairs investigation confirms Carrillo's account. The state patrol's Lt. Col. Matthew Langer wrote that Munoz's actions more than inconvenienced the family. Langer said the trooper humiliated the passenger who had a serious health condition, leaving her to fend for herself in a public restaurant. Langer concluded Munoz did not exercise the level of respect or decision-making expected of a trooper and created a negative image of the state patrol.
The nightmare traffic stop involving Munoz is just one red flag emerging from newly released documents from the Department of Public Safety in response to an MPR News data practices request to examine some of the trooper's personnel information. There have been six sustained charges against Munoz since 2009. In one statement of charges, then-Lt. Col. Kevin Daly said the trooper was "counseled numerous times about rudeness, anger or negative attitude with violators."
The department initially declined a request last May from MPR News to provide detailed documents showing the basis of the complaints against Munoz. The department complied only after the state's Information Policy Analysis Division issued an advisory opinion finding that the statements should be public.
Munoz declined to respond to the complaints against him, saying in an email to MPR News that he would "pass on the opportunity."
The Department of Public Safety did not grant a separate interview request to talk to Munoz' supervisors. DPS did say there are three new pending internal complaints against Munoz.
Munoz' record of complaints makes him a curious pick to lead the Drug Recognition Evaluator program. The DRE program trains officers to observe members of the public who are under the influence of illicit drugs, and some of those people include homeless and other vulnerable populations. During Munoz' first year in charge of the program, a video released this spring by OccupyMN activists claimed officers in the class were giving drugs to their test subjects.
"He gave me a whole bag of weed, and we smoked it all up," says a person in the video.
It is unclear if Munoz was involved in the alleged activity. The State Patrol temporarily suspended one trooper in the training, but Munoz continues to coordinate the DRE program. There are currently 200 DRE officers in Minnesota representing 90 agencies who continue to detect and remove impaired drivers from the road. The training component remains on hold during the investigation, and the Hennepin County Attorney's office is expected to determine soon whether any crimes were committed.
For drivers who have had bad encounters with Munoz, it is unsurprising that the State Patrol would want to take him off the road and put him behind a desk.
It was May 2009 when Jeremy Bell of Woodbury crossed paths with the trooper, after his car ran out of gas along Interstate 494. Bell, a medical device salesman, said he had already pulled onto the shoulder and contacted the Highway Helpers to bring him some gas when Munoz rolled up behind him.
Bell said when he explained to Munoz what happened, the trooper stared at him.
"And just asked me if I knew if I knew how to put gas in my car," Bell said. "I'm in a suit and tie, traveling home from work. I have no criminal record. There's no reason to think I'm here to cause any problems or that I don't know how to put gas in my car."
Bell said Munoz wanted to push the stalled vehicle with his squad car across a bridge to a place where the shoulder was wider. But Bell had reservations about damaging his brand new company car. The internal affairs investigation confirms that after about 20 seconds, Munoz told Bell to get out of the car because he was going to jail.
"I said, 'Arrest me for what? That's ridiculous.' And then he said, 'If you don't get out of the car, I'm going to come into the car and get you, and bring you out of the car.' That's when I knew there was something seriously wrong happening here," Bell said.
Bell was cited for obstructing the legal process and was locked up for about 12 hours in the Dakota County jail. The charge was eventually dismissed, and the Department of Public Safety said Bell won a financial settlement of $7,500. Munoz was reprimanded for violating Bell's constitutional rights, jailing him without writing an arrest report, and failing to exercise reasonable courtesy.
To learn that Munoz, now a sergeant, has moved onto larger responsibilities is unsettling to Bell. He considers Munoz a dangerous trooper who can't seem to distinguish between criminals and people in need of help.
"If he couldn't handle a very simple motorist who ran out of gas and sitting on the side of the road, I'd be shocked that he could be in charge of any process or project," Bell said.
Inquiries were made to the state Department of Public Safety for any letters of commendation in Munoz' personnel file, but none were found. The State Patrol declined to elaborate on why Munoz was selected to coordinate the drug recognition program. However, Munoz was the only trooper to apply for the job.
MPR's Dan Gunderson contributed to the reporting for this story.