ACLU: Police in Arizona Violating Civil Rights During Immigration Checks

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Tucson police enforcing the controversial "show me your papers" section of Arizona's SB 1070 are routinely prolonging traffic stops in order to investigate a person's immigration status, according to a new American Civil Liberties Union investigation.

The U.S. Supreme Court specifically warned against such action in 2012 when it allowed Section 2(B) to stand after ruling much of the rest of SB 1070 unconstitutional.

While SCOTUS justices determined that it was OK for local police to contact the federal government to verify an individual's immigration status during a traffic stop, they prohibited officers from extending detention solely to check citizenship. So, if U.S. Border Patrol doesn't arrive by the time the officer finishes issuing a speeding citation, police are obligated to let people go.

"The big question in the run-up to SB 1070 was whether the law would lead to civil-rights violations," James Lyall, the staff attorney at the ACLU of Arizona who conducted the investigation, told New Times. "Now, we have objective evidence that is exactly what has happened. Arizona officers are enforcing SB 1070 in a way that violates the Constitution."

Lyall reviewed traffic-stop records from June 2014 to December 2015, obtained from the Tucson Police Department through a public-records request, and identified clear or potential problems in more than 75 percent of the stops during which Border Patrol was called.

The majority of the incidents were routine traffic stops that should have been resolved within minutes but often stretched on one to three hours, Lyall said.

In one case, for example, a mother driving her two children to school was cited for a suspended license. Instead of releasing her, police made her wait an hour and 20 minutes for Border Patrol.

The Supreme Court recently held, in Rodriguez v. United States, that dragging out a traffic stop even seven or eight minutes beyond the time needed to address the traffic issue violated a person's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The ACLU has written letters to both the Tucson Police Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the parent organization to the Border Patrol, calling for a formal review of Tucson Police Department immigration polices and practices.

The Tucson PD, in response to the ACLU and others, has revised its immigration policy over the past several years to prohibit officers from prolonging detention in order to investigate a person's immigration status. However, Lyall said, the ACLU's investigation revealed several instances when supervisors told officers that "time was not an issue" and that it was "generally acceptable to wait for Border Patrol to drive to the scene."

"That couldn't be further from the truth," Lyall said.

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, in a written statement, said he planned to "give thoughtful consideration" to the ACLU's complaint, noting that his goal is to "fairly enforce the law."

Lyall said the ACLU hopes to correct the problems through negotiation but is committed to turn to litigation if need be.

"We have worked with the City of Tucson, and we are still willing to work with the City of Tucson to reform its practices, but our patience is not infinite," he said. "We are deeply concerned that, despite many improvements in policy, these civil-rights violations are continuing to occur." 

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