Seven of 11 former Panda Express employees charged with criminal impersonation were sentenced Monday by Superior Court Judge Frank Dawley to time served in jail, $400 in attorney fees and a $25 indigent fee.
Eight pleaded guilty, admitting they used fake Social Security cards to help them gain employment at a Tucson restaurant.
The men and women were arrested March 18 by Department of Public Safety officers after a three-month investigation into alleged identity theft by workers at Panda Express, 2485 N. Swan Road.
One defendant, Francisco Mondaca Duarte, 22, retained his own attorney. He told the Tucson Citizen following his sentencing that he will apply for permanent citizenship status. He was sentenced to time served in jail, which was 55 days, and 100 hours of community service.
He told the Citizen “someone” offered him a free phony Social Security card and he took it.
Dawley used his prerogative to sentence the defendants on a misdemeanor charge.
Omar Alfredo Espino-Lara, 24, wept as he told the judge, “I wanted to be successful. I didn’t plan to steal nothing. I just want to apologize for what I did.”
He had lived in the United States illegally for 11 years and graduated from Sunnyside High School, his attorney said. He faces possible deportation, as do most of the other defendants.
According to investigators, Espino-Lara and 10 other employees of Panda Express were working with phony Social Security cards, some under aliases.
One card held the Social Security number of a person who is deceased.
The defendants were allowed to plead guilty to “undesignated” criminal impersonation, a felony, which Dawley reduced to a misdemeanor.
Margo Cowan, defense attorney for Rosa Nohemi Gutierrez- Parra, 29, said her client and the other defendants “are the victims of the federal government’s inability to (pass) comprehensive immigration reform.”
Cowan said they also are “victims of state laws that criminalize their conduct.”
The defendants were charged under an Arizona law which makes it a felony to steal someone’s identity.
Gutierrez-Parra, 29, wept as Cowan spoke about the burden on her client as she spent 153 days in jail separated from her 6-year-old son.
“She is like so many immigrants who come to America,” Cowan said. “She makes the community better. What she faces (a criminal conviction) is shameful,” Cowan said.
Gutierrez-Parra’s felony charge was reduced to a class one misdemeanor and she was sentenced, like the others, to time served and attorney fees.
Isabel Garcia, Pima County’s legal defender and the attorney for Marlen Yobana Moreno-Peralta, 23, said her client used someone else’s valid Social Security number to get a job and a car loan. The car she bought has been repossessed, Garcia said.
“I submit to you (this case) is a waste of taxpayer money,” Garcia said. “Someone at work (at the restaurant) called (the Department of Public Safety) to report them because of a poisonous atmosphere at work.”
“There is not one penny of harm to anyone involved in this case,” Garcia said.
Three of the 11 indicted in the case will be sentenced Sept. 22 or earlier. They are being detained as flight risks by Customs and Border Protection at the federal detention facility in Eloy and were unable to appear by telephone or in person for sentencing Monday.