Law­suit: Latino fam­ily with kids un­law­fully de­tained by Han­cock deputies

The Sun Herald - - Front Page - BY ANITA LEE calee@sun­her­ald.com

GULF­PORT

A South Carolina fam­ily was un­law­fully ar­rested and de­tained for four har­row­ing hours be­cause of the color of their skin, ac­cord­ing to a law­suit the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter and Mis­sis­sippi Cen­ter for Jus­tice filed Wed­nes­day against five Han­cock County sher­iff’s deputies and the county.

Mar­cos and Stephanie Martinez were tak­ing a va­ca­tion to Mex­ico with their three chil­dren, his mother, his sis­ter and a fam­ily friend when Han­cock County Deputy Mil­ton A. Latschar pulled over their van on the af­ter­noon of June 3, 2017. Stephanie Martinez and her chil­dren are U.S. cit­i­zens. Her hus­band, who is orig­i­nally from Mex­ico, has sta­tus as a per­ma­nent U.S. res­i­dent. The van’s other oc­cu­pants also were legally in the United States.

“This is a clas­sic case of be­ing ar­rested for ‘driv­ing while Latino,’ ” said Rob McDuff of Jack­son, who is serv­ing as MCJ’s at­tor­ney.

The law­suit ac­cuses the deputies and Han­cock County of vi­o­lat­ing the con­sti­tu­tional rights of the Martinez fam­ily through un­law­ful search and seizure and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, and of break­ing state laws against un­law­ful ar­rest and im­pris­on­ment.

The fam­ily seeks un­spec­i­fied com­pen­sa­tion for their pain and suf­fer­ing, puni­tive dam­ages, at­tor­neys’ fees and court costs. U.S. Dis­trict Judge Sul Oz­er­den is pre­sid­ing over the case.

WHAT HAP­PENED

The law­suit de­scribes a fam­ily trip that pained and hu­mil­i­ated the Martinez fam­ily.

After pulling their van over on west­bound In­ter­state 10, Latschar first asked whether the Martinezes were le­gal U.S. res­i­dents. They pro­duced their pa­per­work and he re­turned to his pa­trol car to run a check.

The youngest of the three chil­dren, a 10-year-old, be­gan to wail al­most im­me­di­ately after Latschar pulled over the van and con­tin­ued to cry through­out the or­deal. The child suf­fers from autism and anx­i­ety.

Once the pa­per­work checked out, Latschar be­gan ques­tion­ing the cou­ple about drugs. He also said it was his job to search for mo­torists traf­fick­ing drugs or smug­gling il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

“Mr. Martinez said he was not smug­gling drugs and that there were no drugs in the van,” the law­suit says. “De­fen­dant Latschar threat­ened to take away Mr. Martinez’s per­ma­nent res­i­dency card if he did not tell de­fen­dant Latschar where he was hid­ing drugs.”

Latschar searched the van’s in­te­rior, scat­ter­ing the con­tents of suit­cases and dam­ag­ing art­work that was a gift to the grand­mother. He thought the van’s un­der­car­riage looked sus­pi­cious. A sec­ond deputy, Abe Long, ar­rived and also in­spected the un­der­car­riage.

After two hours on the road­side, Latschar or­dered the Martinezes to fol­low him in their van to the Han­cock County Pub­lic Safety Com­plex.

Stephanie Martinez, the chil­dren and the oth­ers were locked in a room in the com­plex. Her hus­band sat be­hind a locked gate while deputies in­spected the van.

A sec­ond Martinez child be­gan to weep, as did their grand­mother. Stephanie Martinez called 911 about be­ing locked in the room. Latscher then came and let them out.

Martinez had called the fam-

ily’s im­mi­gra­tion lawyer from the van as they drove to the sher­iff’s of­fice. The lawyer called Han­cock County de­mand­ing the fam­ily’s re­lease. She be­lieves she spoke with sher­iff’s Lt. Wil­liam Cov­ing­ton, who said he autho­rized the search.

Two other uniden­ti­fied deputies helped de­tain the Martinezes at the sher­iff’s of­fice, the law­suit says.

FAM­ILY RE­LEASED

The law­suits says the fam­ily was fi­nally re­leased after deputies de­ter­mined the van’s un­der­car­riage had not been mod­i­fied.

Only then did Latschar re­turn their le­gal doc­u­ments.

“Fol­low­ing the June 3, 2017, in­ci­dent, the en­tire fam­ily has be­come fear­ful and mis­trust­ful of law en­force­ment,” the law­suit says.

“The Martinez chil­dren have ex­pe­ri­enced in­creased anx­i­ety and fear when trav­el­ing. They have ex­pressed fear that their fa­ther could be de­ported by law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

“... Ms. Martinez wor­ries fre­quently that her hus­band’s per­ma­nent res­i­dency could be at risk as the re­sult of an­other abuse of au­thor­ity by law en­force­ment. Ms. Martinez has lost her peace of mind as well as her trust in law en­force­ment.”

Han­cock County and the deputies are ex­pected to file a re­sponse once they have re­viewed the al­le­ga­tions.

WES­LEY MULLER Sun Her­ald file

A law­suit filed against Han­cock County says Stephanie Martinez and her three chil­dren, all from South Carolina, were il­le­gally de­tained in a locked room at the Han­cock County Pub­lic Safety Com­plex on U.S. 90 while her hus­band sat be­hind a locked gate and deputies searched the fam­ily van. The va­ca­tion­ing fam­ily was re­leased after four hours, hav­ing bro­ken no laws, the law­suit al­leges.

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