SPLC lawsuit: Family detained, searched in Mississippi because they ‘looked’ Latino

The Martinez family was traveling along a Mississippi highway – on their way to a vacation – when a sheriff’s deputy stopped them for no apparent reason.

It was all downhill from there.

This Latino family was detained by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office for approximately four hours, without any reason to believe that they had committed a crime. During the detention, the deputy – who announced that he was looking for “illegals” – confiscated the family’s passports and valid immigration documents, and repeatedly threatened the father, Marcos Martinez, with losing his lawful permanent residency if he did not admit to possessing drugs.

Despite two invasive searches and extensive questioning during last year’s stop, no drugs or any other evidence of criminal activity was found. The family’s only “crime” was that they looked Latino.

Today, the SPLC and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Martinez, his wife Stephanie Martinez, and their three children. The groups filed the lawsuit against Hancock County, Mississippi, the Hancock County sheriff’s deputy who pulled over the family’s van, and other deputies who participated in the illegal detention.

For around two hours, the Martinez family was detained on the side of Interstate 10 in Mississippi, their bags were searched, and the contents of their luggage were strewn all over the van’s trunk. The family was then taken to the sheriff’s office in Hancock County, Mississippi, where they were detained for approximately two more hours.

Family separation threatened

A sheriff’s deputy drove Stephanie Martinez to tears by threatening to separate her from her three children. The children were scared that their father would be deported following the deputy’s threats, even though Marcos Martinez, who was born in Mexico, has legal status in the United States.

Marcos Martinez’s 83-year-old mother, his sister and a family friend were also in the van and were also detained. All the van’s occupants were in the country legally, either by virtue of their U.S. citizenship, legal residency or valid visas. Stephanie Martinez and her three children are U.S. citizens.

Local law enforcement officials such as Hancock County sheriff’s deputies cannot perform the functions of an immigration officer except under very narrow circumstances, such as in a formal agreement with the federal government. Hancock County has no such agreement.

The family’s harrowing experience ended only after Stephanie Martinez made a 911 call from a room inside the sheriff’s office where the family was being held, and demanded their release. The Martinez family’s immigration lawyer also called the sheriff’s office and challenged their detention. Soon afterward, the family was told that they could leave. Nothing illegal was ever found and no member of the family was ever charged with a crime or even received a traffic ticket.

White motorists are not treated the same way, the lawsuit states.

“It took me a long time to get my green card, and the officer was threatening to take that away for no reason,” Marcos Martinez said. “I believe he was harassing me just because of the way I look. It made me so sad and frustrated.”

The actions of Hancock County and its sheriff’s deputies violated the Martinez family’s rights under the U.S. Constitution to equal protection under the law and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, according to the lawsuit. The family’s rights under Mississippi state law – to be free from false arrest and false imprisonment – were also violated, the lawsuit states. Additionally, the deputies’ actions caused the family significant emotional distress and undermined the family’s trust in law enforcement officers.

Racial profiling

The family’s ordeal highlights a national problem of racial profiling by law enforcement against people who look Latino.

Using tactics that have raised legal questions about racial profiling and unlawful arrest, local police, sheriff’s offices and state troopers around the country have been stopping Latino drivers, questioning them and their passengers about their immigration status, and then detaining them without warrants, often until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrives. In some instances, even Latino individuals who were born in the U.S., like members of the Martinez family, have been asked to prove their citizenship.

“Racial profiling against people like the Martinez family is an egregious and pervasive form of discrimination,” said Elissa Johnson, a senior supervising attorney with the SPLC. “Not only is it illegal and traumatic for victims; it also erodes communities’ trust in law enforcement, which can have a direct and significant impact on public safety.”

Part of the problem is that the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, like many other law enforcement agencies in the South, does not have any written policy prohibiting racial profiling. The sheriff’s office confirmed that it does not have a written policy on racial profiling in its response to a request from the SPLC that was filed under Mississippi’s Public Records Act.

As the SPLC recently documented in a survey of Louisiana law enforcement agencies, the absence of an adequate agency policy against racial profiling can lead to widespread harassment and detention of people of color by individual officers. The SPLC recently published guidance for law enforcement agencies on best practices for writing policies against racial profiling. The report draws on multiple sources, including consultations with national experts and a review of proposed and existing policies nationwide.

Recognizing that racial profiling is illegal and ineffective, cities and law enforcement agencies throughout the country have cracked down on the practice. For instance, in the Gulf Coast region, New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, have policies requiring police officers to treat individuals equally, generally prohibiting officers from taking action based on immigration status, and limiting officers’ ability to ask about immigration status.

Legal consequences

In other cities, law enforcement agencies have faced legal consequences for engaging in racial profiling. Madison County, Mississippi, was recently sued for unconstitutionally targeting black drivers and pedestrians for searches and seizures. In Arizona, a federal court invalidated a policy by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of detaining individuals based on race and perceived immigration status. The court ordered the sheriff’s office to train deputies on racial profiling and collect specific data on traffic stops.

Although the Martinez family is seeking monetary damages from Hancock County and the sheriff’s deputies, the family also hopes their lawsuit will cause the sheriff’s office to change its practices so that other people are not subjected to illegal detentions and harassment based on their race, ethnicity, or perceived immigration status.

“We don’t want anyone else to have to go through what we went through,” Stephanie Martinez said. “I don’t want my kids to grow up in a world where they will suffer discrimination because of their skin color.”

Photo by John Wilkerson/Associated Press