The Lead

ACLU lawsuit alleges State Police acted as immigration enforcement during traffic stops

By: - June 27, 2019 7:36 pm

Ten state motorists are suing the Pennsylvania State Police for alleged racial profiling and enforcing federal immigration law without a criminal warrant.

The allegations stem from five separate incidents beginning in early 2017, some including U.S. citizens. The plaintiffs, who are Latinx, contend they were asked to show proof of citizenship during routine interactions with Pennsylvania state troopers as part of investigations into their legal status.

The suit also alleges that the plaintiffs were detained, sometimes for hours, to wait for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to arrive on the scene.

“PSP troopers have taken it upon themselves to act as enforcers of the complex system of federal civil immigration laws, but without any training, oversight, or the requisite legal authority,” the suit states.

Under U.S. law, immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. ICE may issue administrative detainers, or requests to search or detain people to determine if they are undocumented, but they are non-binding.

These requests also do not protect municipalities from liability if an individual is wrongly detained.

The ACLU suit alleges that state troopers continued in the illegal behavior “with the knowledge and tacit approval of PSP leadership.”

Trooper Brent Miller, director of communications for the State Police, said in an emailed statement that the law enforcement agency has not yet received any documentation of the suit.

Miller also pointed to a recently adopted policy change.

“The PSP has trained its members and deployed internal reporting mechanisms to facilitate on-going compliance monitoring,” Miller said in a statement.

One plaintiff spoke Thursday at a Capitol press conference announcing the suit. Rebecca Castro, a U.S. citizen, says she was pulled over while driving to a job site in Maryland from Luzerne County. The officer who conducted the stop cited a concern over human trafficking.

Castro was traveling with two passengers — her then-boyfriend and a co-worker — who were also asked for their IDs.

The officer detained Castro, then called ICE agents who arrested the two passengers and placed them in removal proceedings, she said.

“It’s harassment,” Castro said of her experience.

Vic Walczak, the Pennsylvania ACLU’s legal director, said the lawsuit is just the “tip of the iceberg” of civil rights violations by Pennsylvania police around immigration enforcement. According to Walczak, the ACLU has determined other local police departments are behaving similarly.

Reporting from ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer last year first revealed that State Police officers were coordinating with ICE.

In response, the State Police instituted a new policy this January that prohibits state troopers from holding people suspected of being undocumented at the request of ICE. It also prevents officers from asking for ID solely to identify a person’s immigration status.

But troopers are still free to communicate with ICE if they believe they’ve encountered an undocumented immigrant.

The ACLU says the policy should and could go further. Walczak told the Capital-Star earlier this year that the best policy would be no communication between local police and federal immigration authorities whatsoever.

Immigration advocates, as well as national police chiefs, say preventing communication enables these communities to trust their local law enforcement.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.