Border Patrol Hit With Class Action Lawsuit Claiming Illegal Stops Based on Race

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Three Olympic Peninsula residents filed a class action suit against the Border Patrol yesterday that promises to finally provide a formal airing for charges that agents are illegally stopping people based on race rather than reasonable suspicion.

All three of the plaintiffs in the federal case are U.S. citizens, two of them correctional officers and one a high school student body president. All were interrogated by Border Patrol agents. They are being jointly represented by the ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who claim the stops represent a violation of the Fourth Amendment guaranteeing freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

The case follows growing scrutiny of the Border Patrol's practices both in Washington state and along the northern border-- the subject of a Seattle Weekly cover story last year. Just a couple of weeks ago, the immigrant rights group OneAmerica and the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights came out with a report offering more than 100 stories of what it called "human rights abuses" along the border, many of them dealing with alleged racial profiling.

Such cases can appear murky when they concern individuals who are, in fact, illegally here. The Border Patrol might not have the right to question them, but that can get lost in ensuing revelations about their immigration status. The new lawsuit, then, seems to offer more clear cut test cases given that all the plaintiffs are American born.

Jose Sanchez, who is of Hispanic descent and works for the Olympic Corrections Center, was stopped by agents not once but three times, according to the complaint. One time, driving near Forks with a family member, agents told him that they had stopped him because his car's windows, which are not tinted, were too dark. The complaint goes on:

But during the stop, the agents did not ask for his insurance or registration. When Plaintiff Sanchez provided those documents, the agents refused to inspect them. The agents only wanted to see his ID and asked hm how long he had been in the United States.

Clallam Bay correctional officer Ernest Grimes, who is African American, was also stopped and questioned by Border Patrol agents about his immigration status during a stop last year. Agents, according to the complaint, gave no reason for the stop. Similarly, agents stopped and questioned Ismael Ramos Contreras, student body president at Forks High School, as he and some friends were traveling to pick up tuxedos for a Quincenera celebration.

In interviews with SW , the Border Patrol has repeatedly said that it doesn't racially profile. Yet it has not explained what criteria it uses to make stops. Pressed on the matter last year, Jason Carroll, then the agent in charge of the Port Angeles station, said agents "look for suspicious behavior." Asked what that might be, he drifted off into a vague scenario about "physiological" signs exhibited by someone who sees a law enforcement officer.

At the least, the lawsuit would seem to demand that the Border Patrol get more specific. It is also asking for an injunction barring agents from making stops until they are trained as to what constitutes reasonable suspicion. The suit also seeks to require agents to document their grounds for each and every stop.

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