(CN) - The Montana Highway Patrol unconstitutionally detains suspected illegal immigrants for hours on minor driving infractions, a federal class claims.
The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance and four individuals filed the complaint in Butte, Mont., against Montana Highway Patrol Colonel Tom Butler and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
They say the defendants "have implemented a custom, policy and practice of seizing Latino residents and visitors of Montana and prolonging their detention longer than necessary to resolve the alleged violations of the law that defendants have authority to enforce. The sole purpose of prolonging these individuals' detention is to hold them as defendants contact agencies within the Department of Homeland Security ('DHS'), including Immigration and Customs Enforcement ('ICE') and U.S. Customs and Border Protection ('CBP'), based on suspicions of civil immigration status violations."
The detention often lasts from 40 minutes to two hours while DHS determines the driver's immigration status, according to the complaint.
Shahid Haque-Hausrath, president of the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance and lawyer for the class, called the practice clearly discriminatory.
"For years, Montana Highway Patrol officers have been acting like de facto immigration enforcement agents," Haque-Hausrath said in a statement. "They have been pulling Latino residents and visitors over for routine traffic infractions, and detaining them without probable cause just to check on their immigration status."
According to the complaint, patrol officers use race to form a suspicion that a person is an illegal immigrant.
"The Montana Highway Patrol has attempted to justify this policy and practice based on observation of 'inconsistencies' in vehicle registration or insurance documents,"it states. "However, white, non-Latino individuals with vehicle registration inconsistencies are not detained solely to contact DHS to confirm their immigration status, while Latino residents and visitors to Montana are."
Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said the agency has no comment at this time.
The class meanwhile says Montana Highway Patrol attributes the detentions to "the pretense of needing a Spanish speaking interpreter."
Such arguments fail to sway Haque-Hausrath, the plaintiffs' lawyer.
"The law is clear that the Montana Highway Patrol can only arrest people for crimes, and can't arrest or detain people just to check if they have valid immigration status," Haque-Hausrath said in a statement.
Montana Highway Patrol had even admitted recently, according to the complaint, that recently retired Chief Administrator Col. Kenton Hickethier ordered patrol officers "to arrest suspects [they] believed might be illegally in the country regardless of whether the facts supported an offense for which a person could be arrested under Montana law. His instructions were to get them to jail one way or another so federal authorities could place detainers on them."
Plaintiff Jose Ramos-Diaz, a U.S. citizen, says he was held at least 47 minutes for speeding because the Montana Highway Patrol officer suspected he was in the country illegally. An investigation by the agency attributed the delay to ICE's failure to immediately return a phone call confirming Ramos-Diaz's immigration status.
Ramos-Diaz says after the officer pulled him over, he asked him for his driver's license and immediately asked: "Are you here legally?"
The class seeks to stop defendants from engaging in racial profiling. It is not seeking monetary damages.