Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez are suing US Customs and Border Protection officers for detaining them at a gas station last year. Their case could test the agency’s far-reaching power to patrol the border zone, including their ability to stop and question individuals suspected of illegal residence in the United States.
Video of the incident amassed more than 40,000 YouTube views within days of its release. Their crime? Speaking Spanish in public.
Montana residents Suda and Hernandez were questioned last may by a uniformed officer while waiting to buy groceries after a trip to the gym in Havre, a small town nearly 40 miles from the Canadian border. After questioning, the officer detained the two women by his patrol car for more than 30 minutes.
After handing over their identification, the two women, who were born in Texas and California, waited patently before Suda began to film. The officer told the women they were stopped because they were speaking Spanish in an area with few fluent residents.
Suda and Hernandez have been living and working in Havre for three years. In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Montana federal court, the ACLU claims the officer violated the women’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law by subjecting them to what they claim amounted to illegal search and seizure. The Fourth Amendment grants Americans protection from unreasonable government intrusion, but given their ability to question anyone within 100 miles of a U.S. border in the presence of a “reasonable” suspicion, Border Patrol agents have come under fire for playing fast and loose.
Most Americans live within 100 miles of an established U.S. border.
“Ms. Hernandez and Ms. Suda no longer feel comfortable speaking Spanish in public, and fear that if they do so, or otherwise express their Latinx identity, they will be stopped and questioned by CBP agents,” wrote their lawyer, said Alex Rate, an attorney with the ACLU in Montana.
The suit says that the experience was “humiliating,” adding that their families have been shunned by community members.
“There was no legitimate reason for Agent O’Neal and other CBP agents to detain Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez. Speaking Spanish does not establish reasonable suspicion to justify a stop and detention, much less probable cause for an arrest,” Rote said.