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ACLU Sues Suburban Police, Allegheny County for Illegally Detaining American Citizen

Angelica Davila was pulling her car out of the parking lot of a Mexican grocery store in Pine township in January 2011 when two patrolmen from the Northern Regional Police Department stopped her because her vehicle's headlights were not on.  But instead of citing or warning Davila, police arrested and jailed her believing she was in the country illegally.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit today on behalf of Davila, who is an American citizen and resident of West Mifflin.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the PA ACLU, said Davila produced a Pennsylvania driver’s license to police along with registration and insurance cards. Officers also demanded identification from the passenger, Joel Garrete, a Honduran man in the country illegally.

Once the passenger admitted to not being in the U.S. legally, officers called the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After two hours the two were handcuffed and transported to the Allegheny County Jail.  

"[W]hen you take a U.S. citizen simply because that person is born in another country, they look like they were born in another country, may have a slight accent, that’s not justification to detain somebody.”--Vic Walczak.

Walczak said law enforcement can issue citations for driving without headlights, but drivers and passengers can refuse to answer certain questions pertaining to their citizenship.

He said just because Davila’s passenger wasn’t here legally that doesn’t give law enforcement the right to detain her.

“She was a United States citizen. If they wanted to take him into custody, that’s fine. There wouldn’t have been any litigation,” said Walczak. “But when you take a U.S. citizen simply because that person is born in another country, they look like they were born in another country, may have a slight accent, that’s not justification to detain somebody.”

Davila immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her parents when she was two years old. She became a lawful permanent resident in April 2001, at the age of 16.

“Spending the night in jail was a horrible experience, especially since I did not know why I was being held,” Davila said. “I want to make sure that this never happens to me or to anyone else again.”

Improperly Detained?

Walczak said Davila was held for 11 hours before being released from jail. He said they have evidence that officials knew she was detained my mistake after the first hour, but they continued to hold her.

Walczak said the suit is intended to get some financial "compensation" for Davila but also to send a message to local law enforcement that if they get into immigration enforcement, they do so at their own peril.  

“These detainers issued by ICE are unlike criminal detainers where you have to hold the individual. The detainer for ICE merely says ‘we’d like you to think about holding this person, but you’re not required to do that,” said Walczak. “And so if the county complies, holds somebody, [and] it turns out they’re here legally, they’re on the hook for those damages.”

Walczak said the county can’t claim they didn’t know the detainer was a suggestion. He said the county has a legal responsibility to investigate whether or not the U.S. government actually has probable cause to detain someone.

The suit lists Allegheny County, the Northern Regional Joint Police Board, the two patrolmen, and an ICE agent as the defendants.  Calls for comment to the Northern Regional Police Department have not been returned at the time of publication.  A spokesperson for Allegheny County would not coment on pending litigation.

Walczak said he expects it to take one to two years before the suit is resolved.

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