07/16/2008

Racial Profiling at Work in Police Confiscation of Migrant Worker's Cash, SPLC Tells Court

 

Driving through Alabama with a lot of cash is not a crime. But for migrant worker Victor Marquez, it might as well have been.

Marquez was traveling to his hometown in Querétero, Mexico, when a police officer pulled over the truck in which he was riding and decided to confiscate almost $20,000, claiming it was drug money.

Citing racial profiling and violation of his constitutional rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center is representing Marquez as he tries to recover the money he accumulated while harvesting beans in South Florida for almost a decade.

"This is literally a case of highway robbery," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "Our client is the victim of a campaign of racial profiling, in which the state has assumed without evidence that an individual of Mexican heritage possessing any significant sum of money must have obtained it illegally."

After a season of harvesting beans in Florida, Marquez was traveling on Interstate 10 to Mexico so he could start construction of a house on land he had earlier bought. He carried his legitimately earned wages and savings, along with that of a brother, who also worked in Florida.

On May 5, a Loxley, Ala., police officer stopped the truck in which Marquez was a passenger "for failure to maintain a marked lane." The officer claimed there were reasons to suspect the cash was related to illegal drug activity. The money was confiscated, but Marquez was not arrested or charged with any crime.

On May 14, the district attorney's office for Baldwin County asked the circuit court to issue an order forfeiting the money to the state for law enforcement purposes.

"This is the worst thing that has happened to me in almost 20 years I have been here as a farmworker in the United States," Marquez said. "It's an insult that they say this is drug money. My brothers and I worked hard in the fields to earn it."

Marquez said he spent nine years saving the money to build a home in Querétero where most of his family lives.

"It's a long time away before I could retire, but it has always been a dream of mine to have my own home in Querétero to go to when I am not working," he said.

The SPLC has filed a legal response that asserts the seizure was the result of an illegal search and the state cannot prove the money is connected to drug activity. It also contends that the confiscation is a violation of the United States and Alabama constitutions.

"This case is important because the Latino community should not have to worry that their legitimately earned wages and dreams of building a home and better life can be taken away on a whim," Bauer said.

The circuit court has yet to schedule a hearing on the matter.

A specialist in forfeiture cases, attorney Jason Wollitz, of Blankenship, Harrelson and Wollitz, LLC in Birmingham, is also working with the SPLC on the case.