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Court: Can't Consider Hispanic Appearance In Border Stops

April 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN FRANCISCO -- (AP) -- Border Patrol agents may not consider a driver's Hispanic appearance when deciding whether to stop someone for suspected smuggling or illegal entry, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Because Hispanics make up a large and growing part of the population, ethnicity is irrelevant in deciding whether there is reasonable suspicion to stop them, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 7-4 ruling Tuesday.

``Stops based on race or ethnic appearance send the underlying message to all our citizens that those who are not white are judged by the color of their skin alone ... that they are in effect assumed to be potential criminals first and individuals second,'' Judge Stephen Reinhardt said.

The decision is another statement in the national debate over racial profiling, a practice by which police stop people on the basis of their race.

The U.S. Justice Department is studying the issue. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 200 police departments are tracking racial and ethnic information to help decide whether officers stop minorities unfairly.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that the Hispanic appearance of a driver or passenger was not enough, by itself, to justify stopping a vehicle. However, the court also said ethnic appearance was a factor that an officer could consider along with others.

Tuesday's ruling came in the case of German Espinoza Montero Camargo and Lorenzo Sanchez Guillen. The two were in separate cars when they were stopped in October 1996 in El Centro, about 50 miles north of the Mexican border.

Although, the appeals court ruled that Border Patrol agents improperly considered racial appearance in deciding to stop the two drivers, it unanimously ruled that agents still had other valid reasons to confront them -- including their tandem U-turns shortly before reaching the checkpoint.

Federal officials said they were satisfied with the ruling because it already is the Border Patrol's policy not to make stops solely based on race.

``We think it's a good decision and it's consistent with how we conduct our operations,'' said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Laguna Niguel.

Federal public defender Stephen Hubachek, who represented Guillen, also lauded the ruling.

``That should go a long way toward eliminating the `driving while Hispanic' and `driving while black' complaints people have legitimately raised,'' he said.

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