PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of nine Mexican lawn service workers who were falsely arrested and detained for hours while shopping at the Galleria mall in Tarentum (Allegheny County) last October. It is believed that Frazer Township Police officers, working with J.C. Penney employees, arrested the men because some Mexican men had distributed counterfeit money in a neighboring county.
"It is clear that these men were arrested simply because they were Mexican," said Sara Rose, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The fact that Mexicans in another Pennsylvania county may have passed counterfeit $100 bills does not empower police officers or department store employees to detain all Mexicans who make purchases with $100 bills."
The nine men are legal temporary workers who spend part of every year in the Pittsburgh area working for a lawn service company on seasonal worker visas. The men live together in a large apartment in Sharpsburg and travel together in a company-furnished van.
On October 8, 2010, the nine men (plus a tenth man who is not party to the suit) cashed their paychecks at a local bank and went shopping for groceries and other essentials at Pittsburgh Mills shopping center, which includes the Galleria mall. The group split up and headed to different stores. Four went to J.C. Penney, where Arturo Ocampo Aponte returned pants he had paid for with a $100 bill the previous month. Another man made a purchase at the same store using a $100 bill. Soon after, while browsing in different areas of the store, the four men were seized by store employees and taken to a security room inside the store. There they were met by Frazer Township police officers, who accused them of using counterfeit money.
Frazer Township police officers found another three members of the group in the mall parking lot and brought them to the interrogation room at J.C. Penney. The men were handcuffed, taken to the police station, and interrogated for hours. An officer forced one of the men to tell the remaining three to meet at a nearby Wal-Mart, where they were also picked up by police. The company van used for the shopping excursion was confiscated and towed.
Abruptly, with no explanation, the men were released at 12:30 a.m. When Aponte retrieved the van from the impound lot, he discovered the vehicle was in disarray, with the glove compartment open, shopping bags knocked over, and trampled groceries strewn about.
"I believe that what they did to me was not just," said Aponte in Spanish. "I am a person like everyone else, and I am thankful to this country for giving me a job, but I have my rights. I am human and at that moment that they detained me I felt bad."
"Returning a pair of pants is not illegal, but detaining someone based on the color of their skin is," said Jacqueline Martinez, an ACLU-PA cooperating lawyer. "We want to send the message to police officers that relying on ethnic stereotypes is not only bad police work, but it also violates the Constitution."
The lawsuit alleges that the police officers and employees of J.C Penney violated the men's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and their right under the Fourteenth Amendment and the federal Civil Rights Act to be free from discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity. The lawsuit further alleges that the men were falsely imprisoned by J.C. Penney.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, is Aponte, et al. v. Martino, et al.The men are represented by Rose and Witold Walczak of ACLU of Pennsylvania, Jacqueline B. Martinez, Esq. of JBM Legal, LLC , and Diane Ryan Katz, Esq.