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ACLU: Tucson Traffic Stops for Immigration Checks Violating Rights

The ACLU says its review of traffic stop records shows Tucson police, with help from Border Patrol, prolong traffic stops to check immigration status.
Image: demonstrator, Joe Arpaio
A demonstrator shouts into a bullhorn in protest of Arizona's SB1070 immigration-enforcement law in front of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office Thursday, July 29, 2010 in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)Ralph Freso / AP

American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona said Monday its review of Tucson police records found the department is, with help from the Border Patrol, prolonging traffic stops beyond necessary to check the immigration status of people it stops.

The ACLU alleges the extended stops are constitutional violations and go beyond a requirement in Arizona’s SB 1070 law that officers make a “reasonable attempt” to determine immigration status.

The group said those stops happened in about 85 of the 110 cases it reviewed in records dating from June 2014 to December 2015. The records were obtained through an open government request.

The group said the stops “reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on prolonging stops and limits on the authority of local police to enforce immigration laws."

The ACLU sent a letter to Tucson Chief of Police Chris Magnus with its complaints about the practices and failures by the department to properly train and provide accurate guidance to its officers.

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The ACLU also sent a second letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, complaining of Border Patrol participation in the prolonged traffic stops.

The involvement of Border Patrol officers shows “disregard for DHS enforcement priorities and contradicts the Obama administration’s commitment … to limit the involvement of federal immigration officials in traffic stops by Arizona law enforcement …,” the letter to Johnson said.

Lyall said the ACLU had received complaints about the delayed stops from members of the community and filed complaints with police prior to Monday’s letters. But he said the Tucson police records confirmed the largely anecdotal evidence from community members.

The Tucson police has made reforms to its immigration enforcement policies over time, but the ACLU said they are inadequate.

According to ACLU's records review, the stops often were stretched beyond needed because Border Patrol did not have a record of the person stopped by police in its database.

In more than a dozen of the prolonged stops false hits or false positives were returned on U.S. citizens or legal residents – almost exclusively Latinos. Some had been transferred to Border Patrol custody on the misinformation.

The ACLU demanded an investigation of Border Patrol’s involvement in its enforcement of SB 1070, Arizona’s immigration enforcement law once considered the strictest in the country. It also asked DHS for national standards limiting Border Patrol involvement in local law enforcement activities and to collect basic data on the stops.

Lyall said the involvement of Border Patrol in local police stops “flies in the face” of the administration’s statements that it would limit the role of the federal government enforcing “this bad law.”

The Tucson police department did not have an immediate response to the complaints.

“We have been made aware of the ACLU’s letter and we’re reviewing it at this time,” said officer Dan Lucas who responded to a call from NBC News Latino to the Tucson police department’s public information office.

The Border Patrol also was reviewing its letter from the ACLU of Arizona and so did not have immediate comment, said Dan Hetlage, deputy director for media at Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D. C. Hetlage said the agency focuses its enforcement resources according to the secretary's priorities for immigration enforcement, with priority given to public and national threats.

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