ACLU of Montana Hails $50,000 Settlement in First Racial Profiling Case Brought Under State Human Rights Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
December 18, 2001 12:00 am

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BILLINGS, MT–The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana today announced the settlement of a racial profiling case filed against the police department here on behalf of a Mexican-American couple who were repeatedly stopped on the highway and searched with police dogs.

“”This is the first racial profiling case brought under the Montana Human Rights Act and we are delighted with the outcome,” said Beth Brenneman of the ACLU of Montana, which provided legal assistance to Bonnie and Andres Castros during their two-year battle that ended with the agreement announced today. The agreement came only after the first full day of hearing on the Castros’ discrimination charge.

“”We asked the ACLU to help us because we know friends and family who told us this happened to them, too,” said Bonnie Castro. “”I wanted the Billings police to know that they can’t treat people differently because of the color of their skin, or where they live.”

The settlement included payment of $50,000 to Bonnie Castro and a number of revisions to the department’s internal procedures for traffic stops and deployment of police canine units.

The agreement also requires collection of data for a two-year period on the location and race of motorists who are stopped by police officers in the city. The data may indicate if citizens are being “profiled” in day-to-day traffic stops. As part of the settlement, Ms. Castro and Chief Ronald Tussing met at City Hall in early December to discuss the case.

Ms. Castro said she believed that the officers decided she was suspicious because she and her husband are Mexican-American, a fact obvious from their license plate, which reads “PUREMEX.” The Castros chose the plate as an expression of pride in their family heritage and their community. “We didn’t think it would make us a target,”” Ms. Castro said.

The initial complaint, filed in February 2000 with the state Human Rights Bureau, accused Billings police officers of having stopped Bonnie Castro, her husband Andres and their infant son in August 1999 only because the Castros are of Mexican-American descent.

The Castro family was stopped twice that month. The first time, they were pulled over for sounding their horn and waiving at a neighbor. The patrol officers warned them that it was against the law to use the car horn except as a warning or in an emergency. The Castros questioned how often Billings drivers are stopped for using their horn and whether it was just an excuse to pull them over. Records produced for the hearing showed the department rarely issues any citations or warnings based on the use of a car horn.

Two weeks later, according to the ACLU complaint, the Castros were driving in a southside Billings neighborhood after Andy picked Bonnie up from work. The family was stopped after they drove by a house where more than a dozen police officers and federal agents were executing a search and arrest warrant. The Castros and their infant son were detained for nearly 40 minutes in 90-degree weather.

One officer claimed he ordered them stopped because he thought they might have guns or weapons in their car, a suspicion that proved groundless. Two separate police canine units were brought to the stop. Each of the dogs damaged the car. The Castros were released after being issued two traffic tickets. Both tickets were dismissed the next day.

In the police report from the same day as the stop, the officer in question, Detective Blake Richardson, claimed the car was stopped because he noticed the license plates were expired and the car had circled the block six times in the area where the warrants were being executed.

But as the ACLU noted in its complaint, the plates were not expired and the registration shown to the officer proved that. The claim that the Castros had circled the block six times also proved false. Bonnie Castro left her work site only minutes before the police stopped the family car. At the hearing, the transcript of the radio traffic established that Richardson’s story could only have been true if the Castros had sped around the block six times in less than a minute.

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