By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
On a long, winding suburban street set between the Sugar Land Country Club and a pea-green lagoon, there sits a white-brick, two-story mansion that boasts a working elevator, a wraparound balcony and a large indoor pool with a retractable roof. The head of the household, who serves as Chinese ambassador to Belize, has embarked on a trip and left his 18-year-old son home alone.
The young man, William Quinto, isn't exactly the most popular kid in school.
Jessica Mojtahedi, another Dulles student, is less generous: "He's a dork."
While his parents are away, the Quinto son does what any rich diplomat's child who lives in a posh house and is just weeks away from graduation is expected to do: He throws a huge party. Teenagers arrive in droves, lining both sides of the normally empty residential street with their parents' SUVs.
A couple of hours later, the Sugar Land Police Department fields a pair of complaints. One is from a neighbor who says she sees kids boozing in the yard and smells marijuana wafting over her fence. The other is from an anonymous caller who many later believe is a Dulles student exacting revenge for not having been invited to partake in the festivities.
A couple of squad cars pull up and park several houses away. According to the kids, the teens spot the police, dart inside the house, and race to lock all the doors and turn out the lights. A cop shines a flashlight through a window and bangs on the front door, but to no avail. He crosses through a wooden gate into the backyard, climbs a staircase and bursts through a second-floor back door, then sprints downstairs to let in five other officers.
As the police raid the house, more than a dozen teens leap some 15 feet off the balcony, scale the back fence and disappear into the neighborhood; several others stow away in a small room off the garage and successfully remain hidden until the cops are gone.
Police corral the remaining three dozen youngsters, ages 15 to 19, into an upstairs living room and make a blanket announcement: Everyone present will be served with citations for minor in possession of alcohol, or MIP, a class C misdemeanor.
Mojtahedi is in a first-floor bedroom. She retreats into a hallway to fetch her shoes and purse when she hears a voice. "Young lady, stop or I'll shoot you!" an officer warns, according to Mojtahedi (an account supported by several witnesses).
Kids are freaking out, shrieking and flipping open their cell phones to call their parents. Several ask to take breath-analyzer tests to prove their sobriety but are refused.
What they are about to discover is that no matter how "normal" or "traditional" drinking parties for teens are in suburbia, Sugar Land has decided to play hardball, and the Fort Bend Independent School District will be right there with it. And that when a student gets crosswise with the school district, trying to ask for "due process" or "a hearing before punishment" is pretty ineffective.
"All y'all are gonna get MIP tickets, all right?" an officer says. "This is not an admission of guilt. If you don't want to sign it, let us know, and you're gonna get cuffed. You get one chance to sign it. We're not gonna play games. If you don't want to sign it, raise your hand now and we'll take you to jail, okay?"
Byron Hrbacek, a star baseball player at Dulles, asks to call his father, who happens to be a former three-term mayor of Sugar Land.
Caught on a police audio tape, an officer replies: "I will not put up with any disrespect out of somebody like you." He then slaps handcuffs on the 17-year-old, makes him sit on the floor for half an hour while all the others wisely sign their tickets, and finally hauls him off to jail.
Hrbacek says he only asked a question and never refused to sign the ticket. Witnesses said the officer knew the boy was the former mayor's son, and according to several affidavits, the officer says that he's going to teach him a lesson that his father can't get him out of everything.
Hrbacek's father, Dean, is livid about this. "If an officer has an issue with me, deal with me; don't go pick on my son," he says.
Quinto, who declined comment to the Press, also was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance that forbids hosting underage drinking parties. Everyone else was ticketed and sent home.
Fallout from the April 14 raid will likely drag on for several months. Some 18 formal complaints were filed with the police department, each of which has prompted an internal investigation. Partygoers claim they weren't drinking alcohol and contend that police were overly aggressive. Nearly 30 of the 37 MIP citations issued that night are being contested in municipal court by a small army of attorneys who say that the officers had no legal right even to enter the house.
Several grievances also were filed with Dulles High School and the Fort Bend Independent School District, which punished the students even before they had a chance to contest the citations. The school doled out 20-day suspensions from extracurricular activities to every student ticketed by police.
"Police claimed there were huge amounts of alcohol," explains school district spokesman Mary Ann Simpson. "Just being at the party shows they broke the rules."
As a result, four of the school's top baseball players, including Hrbacek and three other seniors recruited to play in college, were told they could not suit up just days before the start of the playoffs. The team's season abruptly ended in the first round.
"We were devastated," Byron Hrbacek says. "Everything we worked for was taken away from us."
Michael Tarantino, a Dulles senior, sued the school district after learning that he would not be allowed to sing in a weekend-long choral recital for which he had spent all year rehearsing. Tarantino claims he did not drink at the party and even has a well-known reputation at the school for abstaining from alcohol. On the night of the party, he sat in his car preparing to leave when an officer snatched his keys, ordered him back into the house and issued him an MIP citation.
Court hearings for Tarantino were held over a period of three days, May 11 to May 13, and included testimony from Dulles Principal Lance Hindt and school district staff attorney Bernadette Gonzalez. In the end, the district court judge denied Tarantino's request for an injunction against the school district. Removing a child from an extracurricular activity, the judge ruled, does not rise to the level of a constitutional right violation.
"Unfair is not necessarily illegal" is how Gonzalez explains the ruling.
Many students remain fearful of additional retaliation from the school. They say that school administrators already threatened to bar them from attending prom and walking in graduation. School officials deny such claims as "rumors and hearsay."
Reached at home, Tarantino's mother refused to let her son comment on the matter.
"It's been such a stressful ordeal," she says. "The less said now, the better."
Static blares and bounces around the room of Gary Franks's first-floor law office. Franks, who represents several of the teens busted at last month's house party, stares at a black-screened monitor and listens intently.
Through a public information request, Franks obtained copies of the video and audio tapes from the night of the police raid. They are mostly useless. But he suffers through them, picking up snippets of conversation amid vast expanses of white noise.
He forwards ahead to a scene in which an officer can be heard ordering the teenagers to go home.
"I don't want anybody driving if they've been drinking," the cop says.
Franks slaps the palm of his hand on his desk. "If!" he exclaims. "If they've been drinking!"
Franks wants to know why the teens were ticketed when the officers didn't even know if they were drinking alcohol. And why, Franks asks, were teens such as Tarantino busted for possessing alcohol and then handed back their car keys and told to drive home?
Sugar Land Police Chief Lisa Womack has publicly defended her officers several times. She says that the large quantities of alcohol found in the house, and the minors' proximity to it, is sufficient evidence to issue the MIP citations.
"It's not okay for a minor to be at a party when alcohol is present, even if they're not drinking," Womack says. "Essentially, if there's enough to go around, it doesn't matter whether or not they had alcohol on their breath."
The defense attorneys dispute this reading of the law, contending that a mere presence of alcohol is not enough. They will build their cases around the meaning of "possession," which is defined in the Texas penal code as having "actual care, custody, control, or management."
"If the police chief doesn't know the law any better than that, then the officers under her must be poorly trained," says Nina Schaefer, an attorney representing one of the students.
Attorneys also condemn the department for the manner in which the officers entered the house. Based on several affidavits provided by eyewitnesses, police were never invited inside and possessed neither search nor arrest warrants. Asked repeatedly about this, the police chief was not particularly forthcoming.
"The question of entry is not something that I'm going to discuss," Womack says, "though I don't believe there was any violation of policy or law."
That's for the courts to decide. But one thing is certain: The school administration still plans to punish the students even if their MIP citations are ultimately dismissed.
Students say this is unfair for many reasons. For one, half of those who were ticketed received no penalty at all from the school since they don't participate in extracurricular activities. Several others evaded punishment since they're about to graduate and their activities ended earlier in the year. That leaves just a select few, such as the singer and the baseball players, who actually served out their suspensions.
And then there's Mojtahedi, the girl who claims she was threatened by police when she reached for her purse. She's 16 and pretty with blond hair and waxy skin. When telling her story, she blinks twice and flashes a bright white smile.
"Look at me," she says. "Do I look like I carry a gun?"
Attorneys plan to paint the officers as bumbling and abusive, and the teens as an exemplary group who belong to the National Honor Society, win sports scholarships and sing in the school choir. Many come from well-heeled families. Most, if not all, will attend college.
Mojtahedi is an athletic trainer at Dulles. She's CPR-certified and helps wrap ankles and ice legs at school sporting events. But even if she beats the rap against her, she'll still be suspended from participating for 20 days next school year, and will have to perform ten hours of approved community service.
"I was going to be head trainer, but not anymore because this happened," Mojtahedi says. "I guess it's not such a big deal, but it is to me."
Deborah Meyer, an 11th-grader at Dulles, didn't attend the party, but says that "it's all that anybody talks about at school." She says that drinking parties are common among Dulles students, though rarely discovered, and thinks that classmates such as Mojtahedi deserve to be punished.
"I thought it was pretty fair," says Meyer, who sits on shaded pavement just outside the school with her knees folded to her chest. "I mean, come on, there's alcohol and 40 people there -- you're going to get an MIP for that."
Franks, meanwhile, is quick to point out that he does not condone underage drinking. But he's convinced that, in this incident, the police and the school grossly overreacted.
"These kids got screwed," Franks says. "The police act like teenagers are a hate group in Sugar Land; and the school district's system is 'You serve the punishment, and then we'll do the trial.' "