Jose Rios-Diaz was driving to a roofing job in Billings one morning in April 2011 when he saw police lights behind him. He pulled his maroon Ford Ranger to the side of Interstate 90 and watched as Montana Highway Patrol Officer Justin Moran walked to his window.
Moran told Rios-Diaz that he was speeding and asked for his license. Almost immediately thereafter, the officer allegedly asked, "Are you here legally?"
Rios-Diaz is of Mexican descent and speaks with an accent. He says he objected to Moran's questions, but the officer continued with the line of inquiry. Rios-Diaz told the officer that he is a U.S. citizen.
Rios-Diaz says Moran went back and forth from the patrol car to his vehicle several times during the encounter, and repeatedly asked about his immigration status. At one point, Moran allegedly said, "Tell me the truth, are you here legally or not?"
Rios-Diaz says his car was insured in his name, but registered under the name of a friend who had planned to buy it from him. When the friend failed to pay him, Rios-Diaz repossessed the car. Moran appeared concerned about this registration anomaly and allegedly asked Rios-Diaz if his friend had been deported. According to Rios-Diaz, Moran eventually looked at him and said: "You don't look like you're from around here."
Rios-Diaz was detained by the roadside for 47 minutes, during which time Moran called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check on his immigration status. When the federal agency confirmed that Rios-Diaz was a citizen, the officer let him go with a $40 speeding ticket.
"I am certain that the trooper was harassing me because of my race and accent," Rios-Diaz says. "After this happened, I felt very tired and frustrated with the racism I sometimes have to deal with in Montana."
Last month, Rios-Diaz and three other plaintiffs, along with the Montana Immigration Justice Alliance, filed a class-action lawsuit against Attorney General Tim Fox and Col. Tom Butler of the Montana Highway Patrol. The lawsuit alleges that MHP engages in widespread racial profiling of Latino drivers in the state. It also asserts the agency's practices are in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable search and seizure.
"These practices violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, because they treat Latinos in Montana differently based on nothing more than their race and ethnicity," says Shahid Haque-Hausrath, the plaintiff's attorney and a founder of the Montana Immigration Justice Alliance. "They also violate the Fourth Amendment by holding Latinos for long durations without probable cause in order to check on their immigration status."
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Butte, seeks no monetary damages, but asks that the federal court declare MHP's practices unlawful and order an injunction to halt them.
The Montana Department of Justice, which oversees MHP, is fighting the lawsuit, and has hired Missoula law firm Boone Karlberg P.C. to represent it in court. DOJ spokesman John Barnes says the department is not commenting on the lawsuit at this time.
Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are undocumented immigrants, and are currently in federal deportation proceedings. Haque-Hausrath says that, unlike traditional criminal cases, immigration courts do not allow defendants to challenge unlawful arrests made without probable cause.
"Once somebody has been stopped by MHP officers, whether or not the officer had probable cause or just blatantly violated that person's constitutional rights, and is taken into immigration custody, it is too late to suppress the arrest," says Haque-Hausrath.
In fact, defendants in immigration proceedings in Montana last year never even saw a judge face to face. Proceedings occurred over the phone or by video conference with federal immigration judges based in Portland, Ore.
The Montana Immigration Justice Alliance lawsuit comes after MHP Officer Glenn Quinnell filed a complaint against his former chief in July. In his complaint, Quinnell alleges that MHP Chief Administrator Ken Hickethier, who retired amid controversy in August, regularly made racist and sexist remarks before being promoted to the top job.
"In one instance Hickethier ordered me to arrest suspects I believed might be illegally in the country regardless of whether the facts supported an offense for which a person could be arrested under Montana law," says Quinnell in his complaint to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. "His instructions were to get them in jail one way or another so Federal authorities could place detainers on them."
When Quinnell told Hickethier that he would not do something that would violate a person's civil rights, Hickethier allegedly looked at him and told him he would do what he was told or he would "be done."
According to Quinnell, Hickethier also stated that "he had made arrangements with ICE in Helena and had been guaranteed that they would go anywhere in the state to get illegals."
Haque-Hausrath believes these separate incidents are evidence of a policy of racial profiling sanctioned at MHP's highest levels. He hopes to get his hands on some of Hickethier's emails as further proof.
"Over the years I have had so many people come to me with their immigration problems," Haque-Hausrath says. "And the way they came to the attention of immigration authorities in the first place was through interaction with the MHP."
The Montana Department of Justice's response to the class-action suit will be presented before the federal court in December.