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Originally published April 26, 2012 at 7:35 PM | Page modified April 26, 2012 at 10:01 PM

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ACLU sues U.S. Border Patrol, alleging illegal traffic stops

In a federal lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is alleging U.S. Border Patrol agents routinely stop to check the immigration status of Latinos and others without cause.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Border Patrol, alleging agents routinely and illegally violate the rights of Latinos and other people of color through unjustifiable traffic stops.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court seeks an injunction to prevent Border Patrol agents from performing traffic stops until they undergo specific training under the eye of a court-appointed special master.

It also asks the court to require the agency to document all traffic stops, including the specific reason the vehicle was targeted.

The lawsuit names as plaintiffs three Olympic Peninsula men, all U.S. citizens, who allege they have been targeted by the Border Patrol because they appear to be Latino.

Such illegal stops are becoming more frequent, with an influx of Border Patrol agents into Port Angeles as part of the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to beef up security at the northern border, according to the ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which has joined in representing the men.

"The Border Patrol's actions have created a climate of fear and anxiety for many people on the Olympic Peninsula," said Sarah Dunne, the legal director for the ACLU of Washington. The plaintiffs, she said, are afraid they can be pulled over at any time without cause.

The lawsuit is asking for class-action status, seeking to represent anyone on the Olympic Peninsula who might be subject to a Border Patrol stop.

In a prepared statement, Colin Burgin, the supervisory Border Patrol agent in Blaine, said his agency "strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion" and that agents follow the Department of Justice guidelines regarding the use of race by federal law enforcement.

The plaintiffs include Jose Sanchez, a Forks resident who works as a correctional officer at the Olympic Correctional Center; Ismael Ramos Contreras, an 18-year-old senior at Forks High School; and Ernest Grimes, an African-American Neah Bay resident who works as a correctional officer and part-time Neah Bay police officer.

Sanchez alleges that he has been approached or stopped three times by Border Patrol agents since the winter of 2008-09. The first time, according to the lawsuit, the agency followed him home but left after he began to record the stop with his cellphone.

In the summer of 2009, Sanchez alleges he and his family were stopped and that Sanchez "was interrogated by two Border Patrol agents regarding his immigration status."

An agent told him they pulled him over because his windows were tinted too dark but, Sanchez said, they never asked to see his license or registration. Sanchez said he was stopped a third time and again questioned about this status in the fall of 2011.

Contreras, who is student-body president at Forks High School, alleges he was in a car with four others on their way to pick up tuxedos for a quinceañera — a traditional 15th birthday party — when the group was stopped July 22, 2011, in Port Angeles. He claims an agent took the car keys from the driver while four agents questioned Contreras and the others about their immigration status.

Contreras alleges he was questioned again in December outside the Clallam County District Courthouse, where a plainclothes agent approached and asked him where he lived and where he was born.

Grimes alleges that he was stopped Oct. 15, 2011, by a "scared and volatile" Border Patrol agent, who placed his hand on his holstered weapon and yelled at Grimes to roll down the car window.

Grimes, who was wearing his Department of Corrections uniform at the time, said he was asked only about his immigration status.

Friction between residents of the Olympic Peninsula and the Border Patrol has increased with a number of high-profile incidents. After residents complained, the Border Patrol was forced in 2009 to quit setting up random roadblocks to check drivers.

In 2009, the federal government paid $48,000 to an illegal immigrant to settle his lawsuit after he claimed he was assaulted by two Border Patrol agents in Mount Vernon — more than 60 miles from the border — while waiting for his child at a school-bus stop.

That incident, and others, prompted Sen. Maria Cantwell to complain of agents' "overly aggressive" tactics and the appearance that they were targeting people "based solely on their race, ethnicity or religion."

Last May, an illegal immigrant fleeing agents drowned in the Sol Duc River, resulting in a public outcry.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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