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Did Jackson sheriff’s office cross the line? Differences in traffic checkpoints are subtle rather than glaring

fr jacksoncheckpointsA debate over whether the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office racially profiled Latinos and used a traffic checkpoint as an excuse to ensnare illegal immigrants is not over yet.


An analysis of traffic checkpoints conducted in Jackson County during the past three years shows the sheriff’s office clearly anticipated stopping illegal immigrants at a recent checkpoint in May. However, their procedures on the surface are not entirely out of line with how other sheriffs conduct checkpoints.

In May, the Jackson County sheriff’s office set up a traffic checkpoint along a roadside between Cullowhee and Cashiers, stopping each passing driver and asking to see their license. It was conducted shortly after dawn on a weekday — a time when Latino workers are known to commute in large numbers up the mountain to Cashiers, where they pick up work as day laborers.

The nature of the checkpoint, which included on-site immigration officers, has prompted scrutiny from the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The civil rights organization alleged that the sheriff’s department improperly used a traffic checkpoint to find possible illegal immigrants. Sheriff Jimmy Ashe has since denied the allegations.

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More specifically, Ashe stated that his office held the May checkpoint on N.C. 107 in Tuckasegee because it has received an “overwhelming” amount of complaints about unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

“We had received numerous complaints in that particular area,” Ashe said.

The checkpoint netted 17 people who were unable to produce driver’s licenses, the vast majority with Latino last names, according to the arrest reports from the checkpoint. Fifteen people were turned over to immigration officers during the checkpoint.

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 — to avoid a shifting strategy during the course of the checkpoint that could be construed as profiling. The location of the checkpoint must be random or be chosen based on statistics.

“We base our checkpoints and enforcement on citizen complaints,” Ashe said.

Because of the specific regulations surrounding traffic checkpoints, the ACLU has questioned why immigration officers were present at checkpoints run by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

The ACLU began receiving complaints in late May about traffic checkpoints conducted by the sheriff’s office. And, once the organization announced its inquiry, people who had been detained by Jackson County deputies at checkpoints began coming forward with their own stories.

“It’s difficult to put a specific number on (how many complaints we have received),” said Raul Pinto, a racial justice attorney for the ACLU. “We have a bunch in writing.”


Raising eyebrows

A public records request by The Smoky Mountain News revealed that the checkpoint in question took place between 5:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. on May 15 this year. There were 15 local law enforcement officials present — 11 Jackson County deputies and officers, two Macon deputies and two jailers. In addition, there were officers with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

How many is unknown. Official reports from the checkpoint simply refer to “a team of Immigration officers.”

The presence of immigration officers from ICE is perhaps the biggest outlier that sets this checkpoint apart from those typically conducted by local sheriffs.

The sheriff asserted that ICE was simply assisting the department with its traffic checkpoint. And, an ICE official has previously stated that it often assists county law enforcement agencies with traffic checkpoints as part of a statewide campaign conducted under the N.C. Highway Safety Initiative.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department has worked on checkpoints with a number of other agencies, including the FBI, the Sylva Police Department and the state highway patrol, Ashe said.

“We are enforcing all laws, not just motor vehicle laws,” Ashe said, adding that officials encounter unlicensed drivers, fugitives and drugs while holding checkpoints and fine or arrest people accordingly.

During the May checkpoint in Tuckasegee, ICE agents interviewed all individuals who were pulled off the road and took 15 people into their custody, according to a summary of the checkpoint.

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland said ICE’s involvement with traffic checkpoints is “not unreasonable.” But, “I couldn’t see Immigration interviewing all those (pulled off the road), only who they suspect who could be here illegally,” Holland said.

Haywood County Chief Deputy Larry Bryson said he did not want to comment on the actions of another agency or whether the Jackson sheriff’s office did or did not do anything wrong. However, Bryson said Homeland Security’s participation in a checkpoint is curious.

“I could see why that would raise some eyebrows,” Bryson said. “I don’t know why they had Immigration there unless they thought there would be lots of illegals.”


ICE or no ICE

ICE has worked with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in at least two other police checkpoints during the last four years, according to records obtained by The Smoky Mountain News. While ICE wasn’t on the ground for those checkpoints, the Jackson sheriff’s office either communicated with them in the run-up to the check points or detained suspected illegal immigrants until ICE could pick them up.

One traffic checkpoint held in Sept. 2009 was also located on N.C. 107 in Tuckasegee — at the end of the work day when Latino laborers are on the road back home from Cashiers. Fourteen officers from the state Highway Patrol, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Macon County helped run the checkpoint from 4 to 6 p.m.

Of the nine people who were arrested, four were transported to Henderson County to be detained until ICE officials could take custody of them.

At a July 2011 checkpoint, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office arranged to have an ICE deportation officer on stand-by to perform over-the-phone interviews of suspected illegal immigrants the day of the checkpoint.

In an email dated two days before the July 2011 traffic checkpoint, Christine Dablewski sent her on-duty phone number to Maj. Shannon Queen in the Jackson sheriff’s office, letting the officer in charge of the checkpoint know they could call her when deputies encounter any suspected illegal immigrants.

“Please pass on that I will be EXPECTING the calls and I will not be bothered by them. Even if there are twenty, I’ll get it done, no worries,” Dablewski wrote.

Queen forwarded on the email to the officers heading the July 30, 2011 checkpoint.

“ICE contact for this weekend’s checkpoint, in case you come across any that you would like to check the status,” Queen prefaced the forwarded email with.

During the checkpoint, ICE interviewed four Hispanics. All four were detained.

Macon Sheriff Robbie Holland said that his officers do not ship people arrested at traffic checkpoint off to immigration officials. They do, however, arrest anyone breaking the law, no matter whom they are.

“The fact of the matter is it doesn’t matter to us if they are Mexican, white, black, or whatever, they are all treated the same,” Holland said. “If an individual goes through a checkpoint — black, white, purple, whatever — and they are not able to produce a driver’s license … that person is arrested.”

Instead of having immigration officers on hand in Macon, they are arrested, transported to the county jail and booked. The jail runs the person’s fingerprints. As long as the person doesn’t have an outstanding warrant or criminal record, and the individual can make bail, they are free to go.

However, the arrest goes into a database that can be accessed by ICE. Immigration officials will run people’s names through their own database looking for illegal immigrants, particularly those with a criminal record.

It is not uncommon for ICE to contact the sheriff’s office asking if someone is still in police custody, Holland said.

In Holland’s opinion, ICE is mostly concerned with illegal immigrants with rap sheets as opposed to chasing down every unlicensed, yet otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrant.

Unlike the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the Macon sheriff does not contact ICE when it detains someone who might be an illegal immigrant. Macon County has run its own checkpoint with help from ICE, Holland said, but it has been between four or six years since an immigration official has been at a traffic checkpoint in the county.

“It’s been some time. It’s been a number of years,” Holland said.

Although the ACLU is still reviewing records from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, from what they see so far, they are concerned by the pattern of local deputies checking for immigration status.

“That is disturbing to us,” said Raul Pinto, a racial justice attorney with the ACLU. “The law is very clear as far as checkpoints outside border areas.”


Changing laws, moving targets

Legally, local cops can’t engage in hunting down illegal immigrants purely for the sake of finding illegal immigrants. Instead, local cops and deputies are only supposed to detain them if they are caught in connection with another crime.

However, some feel that illegal immigrants should be deported no matter where they are or what their background is.

“Our opinion is that when sheriffs do these traffic stops, whoever they catch, for whatever reason, is a good thing,” said James Johnson, president of North Carolinians For Immigration Reform and Enforcement (NCFIRE), a nonprofit focused on immigration enforcement.

Johnson balked at the ACLU’s allegations that that Jackson County Sheriff’s Office engaged in racial profiling.

“That is a typical tactic that they use particularly against sheriffs,” Johnson said. “They certainly aren’t looking out for Americans.”

Johnson had no problem with ICE’s involvement with the traffic checkpoints.

“They had a reason to have them there,” Johnson said, commending the Jackson sheriff’s office for being proactive. Since illegal immigrants are unlicensed, uninsured drivers, if they hit someone, they don’t have insurance to cover the damages or injuries, Johnson said.

Technically, only the U.S. Border Patrol, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, is allowed to conduct checkpoints aimed at catching illegal immigrants. However, the patrol only has jurisdiction to enforce immigration laws within 100 miles of the Canadian and Mexican borders — a far cry from North Carolina.

The Supreme Court last month struck down the majority of an Arizona law regarding local cops’ role in combating illegal immigration, including a section that would have allowed police to arrest illegal immigrants without probable cause.

However, the court upheld part of the law permitting local police to check a person’s immigration status in the course of enforcing other laws.

Although the case sets a precedent, North Carolina currently has no statute that gives law enforcement officials the authority to check an individual’s immigration status during their regular duties. But, it also has no law prohibiting it.

Complicating matters even more is the fact that the status of illegal immigrants seems to change routinely. Just weeks before the Supreme Court ruling, President Barack Obama issued an executive action allowing young illegal immigrants to obtain a two-year work permit, which defers any possibility of deportation and gives them the opportunity to receive a driver’s license and other documentation as long as they meet specific requirements, including being a law-abiding individual.

A study by the Pew Research Center, estimated that 325,000 illegal immigrants lived in North Carolina in 2010, up from an estimated 210,000 in 2000.


By the numbers

Traffic checkpoints are pretty standard procedure for any county sheriff’s department — and for the most part, Jackson County Sheriff’s Department falls in line with other counties, to the extent there is even a norm.

The number of checkpoints held each year varies wildly. The Macon County Sheriff’s Office held 117 traffic checkpoints in 2011, 69 in 2010 and 170 in 2009.

Comparatively, Jackson County’s Sheriff Office has held 149 traffic checkpoints in 2011, 101 in 2010 and 84 in 2009. So far this year, it has conducted 45 checkpoints.

Checkpoints typically have four to five officers, but larger operations can also reach up to 12 or 15 law enforcement officials, estimated the Haywood and Macon County sheriffs’ offices.

Although most of Jackson County’s checkpoints average just four or five officers, the controversial May 15 traffic checkpoint in Tuckasegee, along with several other checkpoints conducted through the year, had 15 or more officers.

“That is very normal because of the volume of the traffic that flows through that road,” Ashe said.

Ashe stated that Jackson County’s traffic checkpoints are based on resident complaints. And, Macon and Haywood law enforcement officials indicated that they use the same tactics when picking their own checkpoint locations.

“A lot of our checkpoints are complaint driven,” Holland said.

When complaints come in, the agencies must decide whether to set up a full-on checkpoint or simply place an officer or two in the area with radar guns to track drivers’ speeds.

The Haywood County Sheriff’s Office is more inclined post an officer along a rural road than arrange a checkpoint, Bryson said. But, the Macon County sheriff’s department could go either way.

“I think the back roads are just as important as the main thoroughfares,” Holland said, adding that more county residents traverse and speed along back roads.

The ACLU’s inquiry comes on the heels of another recent controversy involving Ashe. Critics of the sheriff claimed that he discriminated against businesses in Cullowhee by telling the state that they were not suitable places for alcohol sales. The state later issued those businesses alcohol permits despite Ashe’s written opinion.

Ashe said that he believes most Jackson County residents endorse his actions as sheriff.

“I am very confident that the citizens of this county support our endeavors. I think the ridicule is a minority,” Ashe said. “I guess when you stand up for what you believe is right and (do) what your citizens expect of you, and you play media into the same aspect … I guess it makes you a target.”

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