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In victory for motorists and taxpayers, Mississippi sheriff’s office will stop acting as immigration enforcement

The Martinezes were traveling on I-10 in Mississippi in June 2017 when their pleasant family vacation spiraled into terror.

A sheriff’s deputy stopped the driver, Marcos Martinez, and detained his family for two hours on the side of the road and then another two hours at the sheriff’s office.   They were never charged with a crime and, according to a lawsuit they filed later, were detained solely because they looked Latinx.

The deputy, who announced that he was looking for “illegals,” confiscated the family’s passports and valid immigration documents, searched the family’s vehicle and repeatedly threatened to take away Martinez’s legal residency if he did not falsely admit to possessing drugs, according to the lawsuit. Despite the fact that the family was not engaged in illegal activity and their papers were all in order, they were not released until four hours after being stopped. 

Today, the SPLC and the Mississippi Center for Justice announced a settlement in the lawsuit with the Hancock County, Mississippi, Sheriff’s Office. As part of the settlement, which was signed last month, the sheriff adopted vigorous anti-profiling policies and ordered that deputies can no longer act like immigration agents. The new policies prohibit officers from stopping and detaining individuals based on their race, ethnicity or national origin, or based on an officer’s suspicion that they lack authorization to be in the United States.

The lawsuit was filed by the SPLC and the Mississippi Center for Justice in November 2018 on behalf of the Martinez family against Hancock County, Mississippi, the deputy who pulled over the family’s van, and other deputies who participated in the detention. All the defendants stated in the settlement agreement that they deny liability and deny the allegations made in the lawsuit.

“We’re very glad that Hancock County decided to get out of the business of immigration enforcement,” said Gillian Gillers, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. “This case is a powerful reminder that local law enforcement should not be trying to do the work of federal immigration agents. When they do, they lose the trust of their communities and risk costly litigation.”

Under the Trump administration, racial profiling like the kind the lawsuit alleged has become all too common. The administration is recruiting local law enforcement to act like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Hancock County has no agreement in place that would authorize its sheriff’s deputies to legally perform the functions of immigration agents.   

In the course of the lawsuit, Hancock County claimed that its deputies were acting under Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant program that seeks to promote cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and federal agencies, including CBP and the Border Patrol. However, Operation Stonegarden does not give local law enforcement agencies authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

After the lawsuit was filed, Hancock County stopped participating in Operation Stonegarden, following other jurisdictions that have withdrawn from the program after hearing concerns about racial profiling and the erosion of trust in police. 

“This lawsuit should serve as a lesson to other Stonegarden jurisdictions,” Gillers said. “The program does not authorize local police to act like immigration officers.”

According to the lawsuit, Hancock County and its sheriff’s deputies violated the Martinez family’s constitutional rights to equal protection under the law and to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The lawsuit further stated that the family’s rights under Mississippi state law – to be free from false arrest and imprisonment – were also violated.

The lawsuit stated that during the family’s detention, the sheriff’s deputy threatened Stephanie Martinez, a U.S. citizen, with separation from her three children, who are also all U.S. citizens. As she cried, so did her children, who were petrified that their father would be deported, even though Marcos Martinez has legal status in the U.S. He was a lawful permanent resident at the time of the stop and is now a U.S. citizen.    

“I worked for years to get my husband legal status, so my children wouldn’t have to be without their father,” Stephanie Martinez said. “For me, the detention was very traumatic, because they were threatening to take something away from him that took so long to acquire. I was scared.”     

Marcos Martinez’s 83-year-old mother, his sister and family friend, who were also in the van, were detained too, even though all of them were in the country legally.

Stephanie Martinez said the deputies’ actions not only caused her family substantial emotional distress, but also weakened their trust in local law enforcement.   

“Every time we see a cop, we’re afraid the same thing will happen again,” she said. “It put the trust we have in law enforcement into question, because if it could happen once, it could happen again.”   

The family’s traumatic experience ended only after Stephanie Martinez placed a desperate 911 call from a room inside the sheriff’s office where the family was being held and demanded their release, according to the lawsuit. The family’s immigration lawyer also called the sheriff’s office and challenged their detention.

Stephanie Martinez said the harrowing experience has haunted them ever since.   

“I try not to think about it, but when I do, I usually cry,” she said. “It’s still very traumatic, because my family and I didn’t deserve that. We didn’t do anything wrong.”   

In addition to the other provisions, the settlement will prohibit officers from prolonging a stop to determine an individual’s immigration status or to transfer an individual to immigration authorities, reinforcing what federal law already requires. What’s more, the new policies prohibit officers from considering race, ethnicity or national origin when deciding whom to stop, question, search or arrest, unless they are pursuing an already known suspect.

The new policies also require deputies to collect data on the race and ethnicity of all motorists they stop, including information on whether the motorist is Latinx, which previously had not been consistently collected. That information, as well as data on the duration and outcome of each stop, will be made publicly available on a quarterly basis. Finally, the policies provide that a form will be made available on the sheriff’s office website in English and Spanish so that individuals may lodge complaints against officers. Complaints must be investigated and resolved within 90 days, and records of complaints will be maintained permanently by the sheriff’s office.  

“This settlement is a win for everyone traveling through Mississippi along I-10, who will be safer as the result of these policies,” said Mississippi Center for Justice Advocacy Director Beth Orlansky. “The policies are a model for other counties seeking to promote healthy relationships with their communities and avoid costly litigation.” 

As for the Martinez family, nothing can erase the horrors of their detention, but Stephanie Martinez is pleased that a settlement has been reached.

“We’re happy with the settlement and policy changes,” Stephanie Martinez said. “It keeps others from going through what we went through. The settlement is what we were after. That’s what we got, and we’re satisfied with that.”

Photo by John Wilkerson/Associated Press