HARRISBURG - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Police and seven troopers on behalf of 10 motorists, alleging that the troopers targeted the motorists for vehicle stops because they are Latinx and then unlawfully detained them - some for hours at a time - to investigate their immigration status.
All 10 of the complainants are Latinx. The allegations in the lawsuit relate to five separate incidents from 2017 and 2018, four of which occurred in south central Pennsylvania. The fifth incident occurred in Bucks County. The lawsuit also notes that these cases are representative of a much larger pattern of illegal enforcement of federal immigration law by the state police.
According to the lawsuit, troopers engaged in a “pattern and practice” of stopping Latinx people traveling on interstates and state roads for the purpose of investigating their immigration status. The lawsuit describes troopers repeatedly asking drivers and passengers for their “papers,” often without actually investigating a motor vehicle violation, and refusing to allow the drivers and passengers to go free until the troopers had contacted federal immigration authorities.
“Emboldened by President Trump’s vitriol, state police troopers ramped up their targeting of Latinx people traveling in Pennsylvania,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “As our complaint shows, the state police administration knew that this behavior was happening but failed to address it or hold the troopers accountable.”
Rebecca Castro and Carlos Amaya Castellanos of Luzerne County are among the 10 people filing the lawsuit. In May of last year, they were traveling from their home to Maryland for work when they were stopped by Trooper Luke Macke. Castro and Amaya Castellanos, who were dating at the time and are now married, were traveling on Route 15 near Dillsburg in York County when Macke observed them at a traffic light. After turning around, passing them, and then eventually pulling them over, Macke claimed that Castro’s vehicle “looked suspicious,” claimed her window tint was too dark, and that there were reports of human trafficking in the area. Castro was driving a truck with an open-air trailer attached, with Amaya Castellanos and a co-worker as passengers.
Over the course of approximately an hour and a half, Macke forced Castro to be interrogated by immigration officials by phone, demanded a vehicle safety inspection, and summoned Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to the scene, who handcuffed and detained Amaya Castellanos and their co-worker. Macke then ordered the truck and the trailer to be towed, leaving Castro stranded along the road.
“This experience was terrifying, traumatic, and infuriating,” Castro said. “We were stopped and interrogated because we are people of color who happened to encounter this trooper that day. This shouldn’t happen in America. This trooper and other troopers who act in this way need to be held accountable.”
Trooper Macke is named in two of the five incidents.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, alleges that the troopers acted in a discriminatory manner and without probable cause in stopping and detaining plaintiffs, which violated their constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The suit also claims that the agency itself violated a federal anti-discrimination law because state police administrators knew about the discriminatory conduct and failed to correct it.
ACLU-PA Legal Director Witold Walczak, who is one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, noted that the ACLU expects to challenge similar illegal enforcement of federal immigration law by some Pennsylvania municipal police department.
“The state police are not the only serial violators of clear law that prohibits police from playing immigration agents,” Walczak said. “This is not the last lawsuit we will be filing on this matter.”
The 10 plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak and Vanessa Stine of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Jonathan Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP; Kathryn Deal, Mira Baylson, Ellen Pierce, and Jonathan Aronchick of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.