ACLU of New Mexico Sues State Police Officer Over Illegal Seizure of Documents

June 10, 2004

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SANTA FE, NM --The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a civil rights lawsuit yesterday against New Mexico State Police Officer Mitchell Maestas for illegally confiscating the identification documents of an Española resident, Estrella Rodriguez, whom the officer believed to be an undocumented immigrant. Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Española, New Mexico. 

"The basis of this lawsuit is a Fourth Amendment claim against an unwarranted seizure of personal property," ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson said. "However, the officer would not have violated Estrella's rights if he hadn't been trying to enforce federal immigration law--something that state police are neither trained nor empowered to do."

In July of 2001, Officer Maestas accompanied a family member of Estrella Rodriguez onto Rodriguez's property in Española to retrieve an automobile in Rodriguez's possession. After Officer Maestas concluded his reason for entering the property, he observed Rodriguez and her family members conversing in Spanish and asked Rodriguez for proof of her citizenship. Rodriguez presented two social security cards--one with her maiden name and one with her married name--as well as a valid New Mexico identification card, her birth certificate, and a baptismal certificate. Officer Maestas told Rodriguez that the documents were fake and confiscated all but the baptismal certificate. He also told Rodriguez that she could be deported "back to Mexico" if the documents turned out to be fraudulent. 

Rodriguez has lived in Espanola her entire life and has never even visited Mexico. 

"Estrella was genuinely afraid that the police were going to banish her to a foreign country," said Lee Hunt, ACLU of New Mexico cooperating attorney. "She was worried about how she would get back into the United States and who would take care of her kids if she were deported. She thought the officer meant business.

"Clearly the officer was operating on some misguided assumptions about Estrella's national origin. The evidence suggests that his assumptions were based on Estrella's skin color and language."

Rodriguez asked Officer Maestas to return her documents but the officer refused. She filed a citizen's complaint with the state police and contacted the state police office multiple times to retrieve her documents, all without success. Finally, after intervention by an attorney and through the efforts of the ACLU of New Mexico, the papers were returned to her by U.S. mail.

Attorney Hunt said, "Estrella's case demonstrates the perils of setting state police loose to do the immigration service's job, especially in a state as diverse as our own. How many native New Mexicans could ultimately experience what happened to Estrella if New Mexico's police are forced to become immigration officers? The potential for racial profiling is enormous."

Congress is currently considering the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act of 2003 (CLEAR Act) which provides legal authority for state and local law enforcement to enforce federal civil and criminal immigration laws. The CLEAR Act coerces participation of state and local law enforcement by basing eligibility for certain federal funds on states willingness to enforce federal civil immigration law. Recently, the City of Albuquerque City Council passed a resolution opposing the proposed federal legislation. Nationwide the CLEAR Act has generated a storm of protest from civil rights and immigrant groups.

Attorneys are Lee Hunt, Cooperating Attorney, and Phil Davis, Co-Legal Director for the ACLU of New Mexico. This suit was filed in United States District Court for the District of New Mexico under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and 42 U.S.C. Sections 1983 and 1988, and state tort law.

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