By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
A federal civil rights lawsuit accuses law enforcement agencies in Gaylord, Arlington and Sibley County with the unconstitutional arrest and interrogation of a Gaylord resident last year.
The suit, filed Feb. 12 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, accuses officers from three agencies of racially profiling a Hispanic woman from Gaylord during a March 2012 incident that began with the arrest of the woman's daughter.
The lawsuit alleges police detained and interrogated the woman, Jesus Manuela Mendoza Sierra, because they suspected, based on her ethnicity, that she was in the country illegally. It also argues that recordings at the jail, including a joke referring to Hispanic inmates as "monkeys," demonstrate an officer's bias against Hispanic people.
It seeks unspecified monetary damages, an admission of wrongdoing and a court order to stop engaging in discriminatory policing.
In an ACLU press release, cooperating attorney Albert Goins called it "the most blatant disregard of an individual based on ethnicity and national origin by police that I have seen" over 20 years of civil rights cases. The Mankato ACLU office contributed to the case.
Three of the defendants reached by The Free Press Tuesday said they couldn't comment. Seven officers are named by the lawsuit, in addition to two unnamed defendants who are believed to be Gaylord officers. Sibley County Attorney David Schauer said the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust would handle the county's defense.
The ACLU account
Here is how the ACLU characterized the events of March 9, 2012:
Police were called to First National Bank around 1:30 p.m. after a woman named Luz Maria Cisneros Mendoza allegedly used a false name at the bank. Gaylord police officer Jeff Milette approached the car and asked the woman to follow him to the police station.
The woman's passenger and mother was Jesus Manuela Mendoza Sierra, the plaintiff.
Sibley County Deputy Marvin Doeden approached Sierra, motioned for her to follow him to his car and asked her to sit inside. She said she didn't want to go with him because she had to work.
According to the lawsuit: "Plaintiff did not feel free to leave the area and at no time did Deputy Doeden or any other law enforcement officer tell her that she was free to leave."
This is an important allegation because it implies that the plaintiff was being detained by police, not questioned with her consent. It is part of the ACLU's allegation that the incident violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures," said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota.
A seizure, she said, can be of people or property.
At this point, Doeden allegedly asked Milette, the Gaylord officer, if the plaintiff was the person they wanted, but he was told no, that the driver was the only person they wanted.
Doeden then took the plaintiff's Minnesota Identification card, a state-issued photo ID, and dispatch confirmed that it was valid and there were no warrants for her.
When the plaintiff tried to leave the police car, Doeden yelled and ordered her to sit in the car. He then drove her to the Gaylord police station. They arrived at about 1:45 p.m.
The plaintiff was told to sit in a large conference room with four or five police officers. She wasn't told she was free to go, and wasn't asked at all about her daughter, according to the suit.
Milette repeatedly asked for her name, and accused her of lying about it. The plaintiff nervously laughed and said it was her name, and Milette slammed his hand down on the table to stop her laughter and called her a liar.
Eventually, she was asked for her immigration documents and said her papers establishing legal residency, called a green card, were at home.
At 2:02 p.m., the plaintiff was escorted by three officers to her home.
While the plaintiff opened the door and allowed the officers inside, this wasn't consent to enter the home, said Nelson, the ACLU legal director.
She characterized the police as "having an overwhelming show of authority over her," and basically intimidating her into letting them come in.
Officer Milette followed her into her bedroom and inspected her personal papers, including her green card, Mexican birth certificate and passport. He then contacted dispatch, at 2:09 p.m., and said her ID "had been confirmed."
Milette then drove the plaintiff to work in his squad car.
That marks the end of the ACLU's legal concerns over the plaintiff's treatment that afternoon, but the lawsuit also includes accounts gleaned from Milette's audio recording device later that day at the Sibley County Jail.
While working on paperwork, he told other employees he'd like to make some popcorn, pull a chair in front of the lockup and say "Look at the monkeys! Look at the monkeys!"
While it's not clear if the inmates actually heard him speak, Nelson called it "evidence of his racial bias."
"It shows that he has an attitude toward Hispanics that is extremely derogatory."
Racial profiling alleged
Nelson said the police officers' actions that day show they never believed the plaintiff committed a crime. Only a lawful resident can obtain a Minnesota ID card, and the officers had no basis to suspect it was a forgery, she said.
And even if they'd suspected it was a fake, they never checked the Minnesota Identification Database to verify it, she said.
"There was simply no basis for them to think that she had fraudulently obtained a state ID," Nelson said.
The defendants in the case have 20 days to file a complaint, she said. The plaintiff has requested that a jury, not a judge, hear the case.