HELENA — A lawsuit filed Monday claims the Montana Highway Patrol improperly detained Hispanic drivers over unfounded concerns they were in the country illegally.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, said patrol officers were pulling over the Hispanic drivers for routine traffic violations and detaining them to check their immigration status.
The lawsuit argues the agency had no reason or authority to detain the drivers. It said race was the sole basis of the detentions. The lengthy court filing asks a federal judge to declare the policy unconstitutional and to stop the Highway Patrol from further constitutional violations.
"For years, Montana Highway Patrol officers have been acting like de facto immigration enforcement agents," group president Shahid Haque-Hausrath said in a statement.
The Montana Department of Justice says it is reviewing the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.
Former Montana Highway Patrol chief Kenton Hickethier resigned this summer amid a personnel complaint that alleged he told an officer to arrest people who might be in the country illegally, amid other allegations of discrimination. Last month, Tom Butler was named the new Montana Highway Patrol chief.
The lawsuit points out that Hickethier was disciplined for other complaints, such as for inappropriate racial comments, but was never disciplined by the agency for the wrongful detentions.
The lawsuit says in one instance Jose Rios-Diaz was pulled over for speeding near Billings in 2011 and asked by the officer "Are you here legally?" Rios-Diaz initially protested what he saw as racial profiling, but acquiesced and told the officer that he is a U.S. citizen.
The lawsuit says the officer detained him and further questioning him about his immigration status and how he got it. The driver was further detained while the officer checked with federal immigration authorities before releasing him with a speeding ticket.
"He feels like he cannot drive anywhere in the state without getting harassed," the lawsuit said. "Because of this harassment he has even contemplated leaving Montana."
The agency has no constitutional basis for detaining drivers based on race alone, with no reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and quizzing them on their immigration status, the lawsuit said.