Deputies in Mississippi were allegedly “looking for drugs and illegals” when they pulled over a Latino family from South Carolina in 2017.
Now the sheriff’s office is changing its policies, court documents show.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Office agreed to language that prohibits deputies from considering race and ethnicity during traffic stops as well as guidelines for conducting those stops in a settlement agreement announced Wednesday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and Mississippi Center for Justice had sued on behalf of the Martinez family, who they say were unlawfully detained, searched and questioned for several hours because they looked Latino.
“We’re very glad that Hancock County decided to get out of the business of immigration enforcement,” Gillian Gillers, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, said in a statement. “This case is a powerful reminder that local law enforcement should not be trying to do the work of federal immigration agents.”
A representative from the sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to McClatchy news group’s request for comment Wednesday.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Hancock County will adopt six policy changes, including adding sections on discrimination and racial profiling and prohibiting deputies from acting like immigration agents or stopping and detaining people they think have entered the U.S. illegally.
They are also prohibited from prolonging a stop to determine someone’s immigration status or transfer them to immigration authorities, according to the SPLC.
Legal advocacy groups sued the sheriff’s office, several deputies and a lieutenant in November 2018 on behalf of the Martinez family, who were allegedly pulled over by Deputy Milton Aric Latschar on their way to Mexico to drop off visiting family members and go on vacation.
According to the initial complaint, Stephanie Martinez — who is Native American — and her three children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, are all U.S. citizens. Her husband Marcos Martinez was born in Mexico but is a U.S. citizen.
They were driving in the family van with a friend, Marcos Martinez’s sister and his 83-year-old mother when Latschar pulled them over on Interstate 10 “for no apparent reason,” the SPLC said.
The family was then detained for four hours, the complaint states.
Latschar allegedly took their immigration documents and passports immediately after pulling the family over and ran computer checks on the vehicle and Marcos Martinez, all of which failed to unearth any violations, according to the complaint.
“At the time Defendant Latschar stopped the Martinez family, the HCSO did not have any agreements with the federal government authorizing the HCSO to detain individuals based on suspicion that they are not lawfully present in the United States,” the complaint states.
Latschar at one point allegedly asked Marcos Martinez to leave the car, questioned him about smuggling drugs and searched the car.
“Defendant Latschar then told Ms. Martinez that he was looking for drugs and ‘illegals’ and that his job involved catching people who were trafficking immigrants,” the suit states.
According to the complaint, he continued to interrogate the family and threatened to separate Stephanie Martinez from her children if she didn’t tell “the truth.”
The family was eventually escorted to the sheriff’s office, where everyone but Marcos Martinez was reportedly locked in a room. Stephanie Martinez called 911 from that room, the complaint states, prompting Latschar to release them soon after.
Meanwhile, Marcos Martinez was allegedly held inside a sheriff’s vehicle as the van was searched by a deputy and a dog.
Deputies also inspected the undercarriage of the van on lifts, according to the complaint.
Using police data, the legal advocacy groups said Latschar had engaged in a pattern of racial profiling — 19 percent of drivers he stopped between 2016 and 2017 were reportedly Latino despite the relatively small Latino population in Mississippi and the neighboring states.
Stops with minorities also consistently lasted longer than those with white motorists, the suit states.
The SPLC and Mississippi Center for Justice accused the sheriff’s office of violating the family’s constitutional rights to equal protection and to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.
The suit also sought claims for false imprisonment and false arrest under state law.
But Hancock County said its deputies had been acting under the federal grant program Operation Stonegarden, which is designed to facilitate cooperation between local and federal agencies, the SPLC said.
The sheriff’s department has reportedly since stopped its participation in the program.
“This lawsuit should serve as a lesson to other Stonegarden jurisdictions,” Gillers with the SPLC said. “The program does not authorize local police to act like immigration officers.”