Created: 03/02/2013 6:38 PM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer
A federal lawsuit has been filed against three law enforcement agencies in southern Minnesota. The American Civil Liberties Union alleges officers in Gaylord, Arlington and Sibley County violated an Hispanic woman's constitutional rights.
The ACLU says she was unlawfully arrested, detained and interrogated.
5EYEWITNESS NEWS has obtained the audio tapes that the ACLU says proves its case.
Gaylord is a town of only about 2,500 people. Once predominantly white, Latinos now make up almost a quarter of its population.
At the center of this case is a Mexican woman named Jesus Mendoza Sierra.
The ACLU says she's been living in the U.S. legally, and working in a Gaylord factory.
In March of 2012, she was a passenger in a car that police pulled over.
The ACLU says that's when the harrassment began.
Below is a transcription of radio transmissions between officers immediately after the traffic stop:
Officer #1: "The passenger got out of the car. I'm trying to identify her. She hasn't got anything--she might be the party you want to talk to.
Officer #2: No, it's the driver i'm interested in.
Officer #1: This party's got no identification whatsoever.
Officer #2: Ok. You got her with you?
Officer #1: She wants to leave. She doesn't want to talk to me but for the moment I do.
According to Chuck Samuelson, the ACLU's executive director, "So then they held her at the station for several hours."
Samuelson says a Gaylord police officer finally drove the woman to her house, entered without a warrant, and then followed her into her bedroom where she provided the officer with all the necessary immigration papers.
"And they said 'Oh, okay' and they let her go," Samuelson said. "And what that was was an arrest without probably cause simply because they suspected If she was Hispanic she must be here illegally."
The ACLU's suit seeks unspecified monetary damages, an admission of wrongdoing, and a court order to stop Gaylord and other law enforcement agencies in the area from engaging in racial profiling.
"People who are innocent have a right to be innocent and they have a right to be left alone," Samuelson said. "The police don't have the right to stop people on the streets, grab their IDs and make a street determination about whether or not they're in the country legally."
The attorney representing the law enforcement agencies, Jason M. Hiveley, tells 5EYEWITNESS News, "The city of Gaylord denies any constitutional violation and believes the lawsuit is without merit and will be dismissed." Hiveley, who is with the law firm Iverson Reuvers Condon, was assigned to the case by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.
Hively went on to say, "The city of Gaylord is committed to making everyone feel comfortable in the city and is also taking the necessary steps to promote and demonstrate professionalism within the city of Gaylord and the Gaylord police department."
But in an audio tape recorded at the Sibley County jail later that same day, the ACLU says a pattern of discriminatory policing is made clear. One of the same officers involved in Jesus Mendoza Sierra's alleged detainment is heard making a comment to another officer that the ACLU says is easily a racial slur.
Officer: "You know what I still want to do? The people in lockdown, grab a bag of popcorn and grab a chair and sit in front of them and eat popcorn. And go 'look at the monkey, look at the monkey'."
In a statement, Hively said the officer who made the comment has expressed his sincere apologies, and that the department has taken steps to prevent something similar from happening again. He did not elaborate as to what those steps might be.
Samuelson said. "We want the pattern and practices to change. We want Hispanic people to be served by the government the same way white people are served by government."
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org