ACLU probes Jackson County checkpoints allegedly targeting Latinos

The Jackson County Sheriff has denied allegations that his department setup traffic checkpoints to racially profile Latinos and find possible illegal immigrants.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation announced June 4 that it will investigate traffic checkpoints conducted by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).


The ACLU-NCLF received specific complaints from Jackson County residents about ICE’s involvement in a checkpoint, which has not happened before, according to the organization. That is why it was able to launch an official investigation into the complaints.

“They were treated differently than a Caucasian driver, and that is a violation of the law,” said Mike Meno, a media relations official with the ACLU. “Their licenses were heavily scrutinized because they were Latinos. At some points, their citizenship was even questioned.”

The civil rights organization is also concerned about ICE’s role in the checkpoint and wonders why the agency was involved at all.

“Now you are starting to blear that line of clearly delineated purposes that checkpoints can be used for,” Meno said.

There is a limited set of reasons why law enforcement officials can conduct checkpoints. They include seatbelt checks, DWI stops, license inspections and checks for other motor vehicle law violations. Law enforcement officials must also create a pattern in advance for stopping vehicles and for requesting drivers to produce a driver’s license, registration or insurance information.

The location of the checkpoint must be random or be chosen based on statistics. For example, if officers know that drunk drivers are more likely to traverse a specific area, they can setup a checkpoint to find people driving under the influence.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe denied that anything was amiss with the department’s checkpoints.

“The ‘checking stations,’ which have occurred throughout the entire county, have been either random or statistically indicated,” Ashe said in a June 11 statement. “Citizens of all backgrounds, as part of our traffic safety commitment, have been subjected to these checkpoints, and the general public has been most cooperative and supportive.”

Law enforcement officials only investigated a situation further if “reasonable suspicion” existed, Ashe said.

The ALCU just started its inquiry, and it’s unknown what the outcome will be.

The result of the investigation will depend on what the group finds, Meno said, assuring that it would consider all possible alternatives once it knows more.

“It really depends on what we find out with our original facts,” Meno said. “It depends on who has been profiled and what their stories are.”


Routine involvement

In at least one instance, a Jackson County checkpoint led to the arrest of undocumented immigrants. A May 16 checkpoint resulted in the detainment of 15 people.

ICE confirmed that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office asked it to participate in a checkpoint in Tuckasegee on May 16 as part of a statewide campaign conducted under N.C. Highway Safety Initiative, according to an email from Ivan Ortiz-Delgado, a public affairs officer with ICE.

“It’s not uncommon for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to solicit ICE’s assistance during a law enforcement action,” Ortiz said in the email, adding that ICE, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, investigates more than 400 federal laws that span from drug trafficking, money laundering, intellectual property rights, violent gangs, and child exploitation, among many other crimes.

The federal entity denied that the checkpoint was setup to target illegal immigrants.

“ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes efforts first on those serious criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately,” Ortiz said in the email.

It is unknown if the immigration enforcement agency has worked with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office previously and if so, how many times.

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