The ACLU announced last spring that it was investigating the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office after receiving dozens of complaints from county residents alleging that deputies were using traffic checkpoints to sniff out illegal immigrants. Legally, law enforcement official can only hold a traffic checkpoint to check seatbelts, for drunk drivers and other motor vehicle law violations.
After completing its investigation, ACLU representative Raul Pinto met with Jackson Sheriff Jimmy Ashe this September and recommended changes to the department’s checkpoint procedures.
“Our investigation into the way the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office conducted vehicle checkpoints found many problematic practices – from the inadequate documentation of checkpoints to the sheriff’s office’s troubling coordination with federal immigration officers – that we hope will now be corrected through these reforms,” said Pinto, legal counsel with the N.C. Chapter of the ACLU.
Both Pinto and Ashe said that the meeting was positive and productive.
“Sheriff Ashe has always remained open to having dialogue with any group that has suggestions, which will allow the Sheriff’s Office to better serve the community and comply with applicable laws,” according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office agreed to stop coordinating with federal immigration officers.
An analysis of Jackson County traffic checkpoints by The Smoky Mountain News found at least three instances when federal immigration officers participated in a checkpoint. The most glaring incident, the one that prompted ACLU action, involved federal immigration officials actually being on the scene and interviewing people pulled to the side of the road.
“These types of operations can lead to racial profiling,” Pinto said of checkpoints with federal immigration officials.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office also consented to using standardized forms from the state to document checkpoints, recording checkpoints using in-car cameras when possible and providing additional training for its deputies.
Pinto noted that using the state-created checkpoint forms will leave no room for people to argue that the sheriff’s office is targeting a specific ethnicity or race. But it will also allow watchdogs to see if checkpoints are concentrated in a specific area or if certain people are repeatedly being stopped at the checkpoints.
“It is a great improvement because it will allow us and other organizations to keep track” of the office’s checkpoints, Pinto said.
Although the sheriff’s office has agreed to implement the changes, the ACLU will continue to watch the county, Pinto said.
“We will be keeping our ears in the community in Jackson County,” he said.