Published April 26, 2012
SEATTLE – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Border Patrol seeking to bar agents from making traffic stops, saying people are being pulled over and questioned for the way they look and without reasonable suspicion.
The lawsuit stems from tensions between immigrants and the expanded presence of Border Patrol agents on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, which shares no land border with Canada.
"People are being stopped based solely on their appearance and ethnicity. This is unlawful and contrary to American values," said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which also joined the lawsuit. "No one in a car should be stopped and interrogated by government agents unless the law enforcement officer has a legal basis to do so."
The ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of three peninsula residents who have been stopped by Border Patrol agents.
Border Patrol spokesman Richard Sinks said U.S. Customs and Border Protection "strictly prohibits" profiling on the basis of race or religion.
"In determining whether individuals are admissible into the United States, CBP utilizes specific facts and follows the Department of Justice's 'Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies,'" Sinks said.
The agency has said it is following its mandate to enforce the country's immigration laws and protect the border and shoreline from terrorists, drug smugglers and other illegal activity.
But one of the plaintiffs says Border Patrol agents stopped him numerous times, even though he's a U.S. citizen.
Jose Sanchez, a prison guard at Olympic Corrections Center in Forks, Wash., said agents have followed him home and questioned him when he's with his family. In one instance, they told Sanchez they were pulling him over because his windows were too dark, but they didn't ask for his car insurance or registration, the lawsuit says.
Another plaintiff is Ernest Grimes, a prison guard at Clallam Bay Corrections Center and a part-time police officer from Neah Bay, Wash. Grimes said a Border Patrol agent pulled him over last year. According to the lawsuit, the agent approached Grimes, who is black, with his hand on his weapon while yelling at him to roll down his window.
The agent provided no reason for the traffic stop while he interrogated Grimes about his immigration status, the lawsuit alleges. Grimes was wearing his guard uniform at the time.
The third plaintiff, 18-year-old Ismael Ramos Contreras of Forks, was with a group of friends when four agents pulled them over. The lawsuit says one of the agents tried to take the keys out of the ignition and interrogated the teenagers but never provided a reason for the stop. Ramos also was asked for his immigration status outside a courthouse in Forks.
"The Border Patrol's actions have created a climate of fear and anxiety for many people living on the Olympic Peninsula. The residents in this suit all are U.S. citizens who worry that they could be stopped and questioned without reason any time they drive or are passengers in cars," said Sarah Dunne, the ACLU's legal director.
The lawsuit says traffic stops by Border Patrol agents violate the Fourth Amendment and exceed the agency's legal powers. It seeks to bar such stops until agents are trained on what constitutes reasonable suspicion.
Border Patrol agents "have implemented a practice of stopping vehicles or participating in vehicle stops based on a hunch or intuition, including stops based solely on the ethnic and/or racial appearance of the occupants of the vehicle, and thus without sufficient suspicion on which to base the stop," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says the Border Patrol's behavior in Washington state is similar to that of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona, which the Department of Justice recently condemned.
One of the chief arguments in the lawsuit is that similar behavior in the 1980s by immigration and Border Patrol agents in the Yakima Valley was deemed illegal by a federal court in eastern Washington, which issued a statewide injunction.
"It worked for a while," Adams said. "Our suit is trying to create more accountability."
The suit also asks the court to require that agents file paperwork justifying each traffic stop and make it readily available to a court-appointed special master. The lawsuit is seeking a class-action status.
ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig said the lawsuit is focused on Border Patrol activities on the Olympic Peninsula, but "a favorable ruling presumably would cause the Border Patrol to re-examine its practices across the northern border."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, to beef up its presence on the U.S.-Canada border, which is almost twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2007, the northern border had nearly 1,100 agents. Now it has more than 2,200. In the same period, the number of agents in the Blaine sector, which covers the border area west of the Cascades, went from 133 to 331.
Over the years, Border Patrol enforcement practices common on the southern border, such as highway checkpoints, have been implemented along the northern border, miffing residents on the Olympic Peninsula, the area's congressman and an U.S. Senator and local authorities. Agents cut back on road and ferry checkpoints after objections mounted.
Tensions rose last year after a forest worker drowned following a foot chase with a Border Patrol agent. The Mexican national jumped into a frigid river to elude the agent. His body was found entangled in roots three weeks later.
The Olympic Peninsula is home to rural towns around the edge of the 1,441-square-mile Olympic National Park. Many immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala have moved there to work in the forests picking salal, an ornamental leaf.
The peninsula sits across from Canada's Victoria Island, separated by the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Manuel Valdes can be reached at https://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes