An immigrant rights advocacy group on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against Frederick County, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and two of his deputies for a 2018 traffic stop that they say was based on racial profiling and led to the illegal detention of a Latina woman.
Should local police enforce federal immigration law?
The Resources for Immigrant Support and Empowerment (RISE) Coalition of Western Maryland filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland with support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on behalf of Sara Haidee Aleman Medrano, who was pulled over by Deputy Brian M. Mothershead at 7:45 p.m. July 7, 2018, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff’s office not only violated Medrano’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights against unlawful seizure, detention and equal protection, but also her rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against racial discrimination.
Medrano, who is in the U.S. illegally and is not fluent in English, asked for a Spanish-speaking deputy shortly after she was pulled over and Deputy Randy C. Barrera arrived a short time later to tell her she was pulled over for driving with an inoperable taillight, according to the lawsuit and Nick Steiner, an attorney with the ACLU who will represent Medrano.
Barrera then asked Medrano about her citizenship status, telling her that she had an “immigration problem” and that officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were coming to pick her up, Steiner said.
“That is an inquiry into her immigration status and an inquiry into whether she has any immigration-related cases, which is completely out of the sheriff’s office’s jurisdiction,” Steiner said.
While the sheriff’s office participates in the 287(g) program, in which ICE trains select sheriff’s office personnel to inquire about the immigration status of anyone booked into the county’s adult detention center and begin deportation proceedings if appropriate, the program was limited to the detention center in 2012, meaning patrol deputies are barred from asking about individuals’ immigration status, according to previous stories published by The Frederick News-Post.
Phone calls and messages left for Jenkins were not returned as of 7 p.m. An email was also sent to Jenkins and Taylor Clarke, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, around 1 p.m. Thursday.
Clarke responded to the email around 3 p.m. confirming receipt of The News-Post’s inquiries and saying that the sheriff’s office would “provide appropriate comments at a later time.” After requesting a comment by 6 p.m., The News-Post did not hear back from the sheriff’s office.
The lawsuit goes on to describe how, even after an ICE agent called by Mothershead refused to drive to the scene, Medrano remained detained there until 8:48 p.m., when Barrera handed her a warning about her taillight and advised her to obtain an immigration attorney.
Later that evening, Medrano and her daughter, who was in the vehicle with her at the time of the stop, checked her taillights and found both were working properly, according to the lawsuit.
“Sara Medrano was harassed by police under an illegal and improper traffic stop. It was not true that she had a broken tail light. And they asked about her immigration status, which police claim they do not do outside of the county jail,” said RISE member John Punchak, in a statement attached to the ACLU’s press release Thursday. “Sara Medrano was the victim of improper, illegal, unconstitutional, and racist policing practices sanctioned by Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins.”
Frederick County Attorney John Mathias, named in the lawsuit as a representative of the county, disagreed with Punchak’s assessment, saying his initial reading of the case was much more cut and dried.
“Ms. Medrano was pulled over for a taillight problem, she then asked the sheriff’s deputy for a Spanish-language interpreter, the sheriff’s office provided that, they issued her a warning and she went on her way,” Mathias said when reached for comment. “Her complaint is that she thinks that took too long ... [but] she was never at the detention center, she was never taken anywhere, she was on the side of the road in her car while the deputies were there.”
When asked about the RISE Coalition and the ACLU’s assertions that the deputies’ questioning Medrano’s citizenship violated her rights, Mathias said he had only just received the filing via email and would need more time to review the case with additional counsel before making in-depth comments.
Steiner described Medrano’s experience as part of a pattern of what he called unlawful conduct by county sheriff’s deputies that stemmed from Jenkins’ management of the agency.
“Sheriff Jenkins, through his entire tenure as sheriff, has set himself up to be this hardliner on immigration and throughout the years has been very vocal about his racism and xenophobia toward immigrants while equating immigration with crime. ... That is exactly what the RISE Coalition has been trying to fight against,” Steiner said.
Along with as-yet unspecified compensatory damages to Medrano, the coalition’s lawsuit also calls for some form of permanent, enforceable prohibition against the sheriff’s office engaging in any form of immigration enforcement.