JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A county in south Mississippi has settled a racial profiling lawsuit and its sheriff's department is setting new policies that limit officers' use of race or national origin as a reason to stop and question people, attorneys say.
A family with Latino and Native American background filed a federal lawsuit in November against Hancock County, Mississippi.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mississippi Center for Justice, representing the family, said Wednesday that a settlement was signed last month and that the new anti-profiling policies are part of the settlement.
The lawsuit says Marcos and Stephanie Martinez of Taylors, South Carolina, their three children, two other relatives and a family friend were on vacation and traveling through Mississippi in June 2017 in the family van when a deputy stopped them on Interstate 10. It says the deputy asked if they were U.S. citizens, confiscated their passports and other documents and demanded to know if they were carrying illegal drugs.
The lawsuit says Marcos Martinez was obeying all traffic laws when he was stopped, and that he and the others in the van were detained for four hours — two on the side of the interstate and two at the sheriff's department. It says they underwent "extensive interrogation, threats and multiple unlawful searches because of their perceived race, ethnicity and national origin."
Stephanie Martinez and the couple's children are U.S. citizens, and she is of Native American descent. Marcos Martinez was born in Mexico, and at the time of the traffic stop, he had legal permanent residency in the United States. He has become a U.S. citizen since.
Marcos Martinez's mother and sister, who are both from Mexico and were in the U.S. on tourist visas, were in the van. The lawsuit says the family was driving from South Carolina to Mexico to return them home before their visas expired. The friend in the van lives in South Carolina and was traveling with the Martinez family so he could see his own relatives in Mexico.
Stephanie Martinez told The Associated Press on Thursday that because of the way the family was treated during the traffic stop, her children no longer trust law enforcement officers. The children are now 10, 13 and 15 years old.
"Now when they see a cop, they automatically think they're coming for us," Stephanie Martinez said. "It's hard for me to explain to them that they are supposed to call on law enforcement in time of need and they are supposed to trust law enforcement when I don't trust them myself."
Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam did not immediately return a call from AP seeking comment Thursday.
The sheriff's department's new policies say race, ethnicity or national origin may play no role in an officer's decision to stop, detain or question people unless those characteristics are part of a "credible, timely and specific suspect description" that includes other information such as a suspect's height or weight. The policies also say officers may not prolong a stop to check a person's immigration status and that the department must collect information about traffic stops, including the length of the stop, whether it resulted in a citation and the race or ethnicity of the person stopped.
Stephanie Martinez said she's pleased that her family's lawsuit brought about policy changes.
"I just want people to know that they have rights and they need to know those rights," she said.
The settlement includes a $90,000 payment from the county to the plaintiffs, a Southern Poverty Law Center spokesman said.
Attorneys for the Martinez family said that Hancock County said its deputies were acting under a program that promotes cooperation among local and federal law enforcement agencies. However, Gillian Gillers, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a news release that the program does not give local officers the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
"This case is a powerful reminder that when local law enforcement tries to do the job of federal immigration agents, they will face costly legal challenges," Gillers said.