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In Victory for Motorists and Taxpayers, Mississippi Sheriff’s Office Will Stop Acting as Immigration Enforcement

SPLC and Mississippi Center for Justice reach settlement with Hancock County Sheriff’s Office that sets new policies for ending racial profiling and immigration enforcement by deputies

HANCOCK COUNTY, MS –– The sheriff’s office in Hancock County, Mississippi, has adopted new policies to ensure that its deputies do not racially profile motorists or act as federal immigration agents, the result of a settlement between the sheriff’s office, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Mississippi Center for Justice that was announced today. 

The settlement, which was signed last month, ends a lawsuit that the two civil rights organizations filed in November 2018 on behalf of a Latinx family – Stephanie and Marcos Martinez and their three children. The lawsuit alleged that the family was unlawfully stopped and detained for four hours based solely on a deputy’s perception of their race and ethnicity, as well as his mistaken and baseless assumption that they were undocumented, carrying contraband, or both.  

“This case is a powerful reminder that when local law enforcement tries to do the job of federal immigration agents, they will face costly legal challenges,” said Gillian Gillers, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. “We’re very glad Hancock County agreed to get out of the business of immigration enforcement.” 

In June 2017, a Hancock County sheriff’s deputy stopped the Martinez family as they were traveling on Interstate 10 on their way to a vacation. The lawsuit alleges that sheriff’s deputies detained the family for two hours on the roadside, then brought the family to the sheriff’s office where they were detained for another two hours. One of the deputies, who claimed he was looking for “illegals,” confiscated the family’s passports and Marcos’ green card, searched their luggage, and threatened to separate Stephanie’s kids from her, according to the lawsuit. All the defendants stated in the settlement agreement that they deny liability and deny the allegations made in the lawsuit.

Stephanie Martinez and her children are U.S. citizens, and Marcos Martinez was a lawful permanent resident of the United States at the time of the stop. He has since become a U.S. citizen. Marcos’ 83-year-old mother, his sister, and his family friend, who were also in the van, were detained too, even though all of them were in the country legally. No contraband was found after multiple searches, and no one in the van was charged with any crime. 

“We brought this lawsuit because we didn’t want other families to suffer in the same way that we did,” said Stephanie Martinez. “We hope the new policies make sure that other people aren’t stopped and harassed just because they look Latino.”

Racial profiling has increased under the Trump administration, which seeks to use local law enforcement to do the work of federal immigration authorities such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Local law enforcement officers such as Hancock County sheriff’s deputies cannot legally perform the functions of an immigration agent except under very narrow circumstances, such as through a formal contract with the federal government called a 287(g) agreement. Hancock County has no such agreement. 

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.  

The new policies in the settlement agreement prohibit deputies from stopping or detaining people based on a suspicion that they lack authorization to be in the United States. The new policies also bar deputies from prolonging a stop to determine immigration status or to transfer an individual to immigration authorities, echoing what federal law already requires. The policies further prohibit deputies from considering race, ethnicity or national origin in deciding whom to stop, question, search, or arrest, except when pursuing a known suspect.

Under the new policies, the sheriff’s office will collect data on the race and ethnicity of each motorist who is stopped, including whether the motorist is Latinx, as well as data on the duration and outcome of each stop. This data will be made public on a quarterly basis to ensure compliance. In addition, the sheriff’s office will post a form online in English and Spanish so that the public may lodge complaints against individual deputies. The office will investigate and resolve each complaint within 90 days and will keep complaints permanently in a master file. 

“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.”