Rules Be Damned: A Legal Resident Presented Valid Documentation to the MCSO but Was Jailed for 12 Days Anyway

Editor's note: This is one of a group of individual accounts of racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's forces. The next personal story will appear on our Web site Wednesday night, November 18.

Unlike his friends, Sergio Martinez-Villaman wasn't afraid during June's immigration sweep in Mesa. The seasonal worker had a visa.

Then came the encounter with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

A detective detained him on June 27, alleging he didn't use his turn signal. The deputy then arrested him for driving without a license.

He was put in a van, along with other suspected illegal immigrants, and left inside to swelter (there was no air conditioning) all day.

He was taken to the Fourth Avenue Jail, where he spent the next 12 days, before a judge dismissed the charges against him.

Sure, Martinez-Villaman was driving without a license, an offense that rarely warrants detention, let alone nearly two weeks behind bars. The fact that he is brown, Martinez-Villaman says, led MCSO deputies to hold him as a possible illegal immigrant while they sorted out his status.

"They didn't recognize my visa," he says. "They thought it was fake."

Now, more than a year after the incident, Martinez-Villaman plans to sue the MCSO for arresting him based on the color of his skin.

Martinez-Villaman is one of many who claim Sheriff Joe Arpaio's forces are actively racially profiling brown people.

"This is one of those immigration-sweep cases that was conducted, and he was swept up," said his attorney, Scott Halveston. "This is a case where he provided [deputies] with documentation to show he was here legally, and despite that, he was still arrested and kept in jail."

For two years, Martinez-Villaman, 33, had been working at Moon Valley Nursery with a renewable temporary visa known as H2B. He was raised doing farm work with his 16 brothers in La Tuna Vadiraguato, a town "with only seven houses" in Sinaloa, Mexico.

A friend told him that he could make better money in the United States, and he was able to obtain an H2B visa, which is given to foreign workers at companies that can demonstrate a shortage of labor in their particular industries.

In other words, he came to the United States the legal way. He came to fill a job that not enough U.S. citizens want.

He saved money to support his children in Mexico (ages 4, 9, and 11), sharing an apartment in Chandler with five other workers.

On the day of his encounter with the MCSO, he had all his paperwork on him, because he was in the process of renewing his work visa, which was to expire soon. He also had an Arizona ID issued by the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division but hadn't gotten his driver's license because he wasn't sure whether he could take the test in Spanish.

About 3 in the afternoon, he pulled his car into a Circle K at Stapley and Broadway. He was dressed in his work clothes, literally covered in dirt, as he went into the store and pre-paid for gas. Before he got a chance to fill the tank, Detective Jeremy Templeton approached him, stating that he didn't use his turn signal when he entered the station.

Martinez-Villaman says the detective lied: "I did turn it on."

After he was arrested, the detective looked through Martinez-Villaman's papers — his Social Security card, his Arizona ID, and his visa documents — before asking the legal resident whether they were real.

"They're real," he told the officer, noting that the same picture was on the ID and the visa documents.

The MCSO claims there was no racial profiling of Martinez-Villaman, that he wasn't arrested under suspicion of being undocumented. Lieutenant Brian Lee, an MCSO spokesman, said people are often booked into jail for driving without a license.

But attorney Halverson notes that the MCSO had the option of giving Martinez-Villaman a citation — which happens in the vast majority of cases. And if the choice was to take him to jail, the attorney says, suspects are normally fingerprinted and released right away — they don't spend 12 days behind bars.

On June 28, Martinez-Villaman saw a judge, who set his bond at $360. He said he wasn't allowed to make a phone call.

A jailer told him his charges were so minimal that he didn't need an attorney, he recalled. Which — if he weren't brown — would have made him wonder why he was locked up.

Martinez-Villaman became desperate as the days passed and he couldn't call his children in Mexico, as he had regularly before being jailed.

His visa expired in jail, and he started wondering whether would be deported by immigration authorities.

"I thought maybe they were waiting for the expiration to deport me," he said.

Wanting to do everything by the book, he filed paperwork with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, asking whether ICE had placed a hold on him. He was told it had not.

At 2 a.m. on July 8, deputies told him he would be released because a judge had dismissed the charges against him.

By the time he got out of jail, his phone had been disconnected for non-payment. He returned to an empty apartment. Fearing similar arrest by the MCSO, his roommates had vanished.

He also lost his car and his $9.50-an-hour job, though he was rehired for $7.50.

The 2001 Daewoo he'd bought for $2,800 had been impounded by the MCSO. But when Martinez-Villaman was released, nobody would tell him what had happened to the car. Turned out an impound yard had taken title to the vehicle after 90 days because it was considered abandoned legally. By the time he located the vehicle, he was informed that it was too late to recover it. Besides, by then, it had $1,500 worth of storage fees that would have to be paid.

He never got his car back.

After he made his way back to his residence in Mesa, Martinez-Villaman was terrified. Now, he just feels indignation. How could somebody who played by the rules be treated this way in the country that is the symbol of liberty and equality?

"A majority of the people are supporting [Sheriff Joe Arpaio] here," said Martinez-Villaman. "Because he doesn't have to pay the lawsuits against him personally, he keeps going on with what he does."

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Valeria Fernández