A South Carolina family was unlawfully arrested and detained for four harrowing hours because of the color of their skin, says a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center and Mississippi Center for Justice filed Wednesday against five Hancock County sheriff’s deputies and the county.
Marcos and Stephanie Martinez were taking a vacation to Mexico with their three children, his mother, his sister and a family friend when Hancock County Deputy Milton A. Latschar pulled over their van on the afternoon of June 3, 2017. Stephanie Martinez and her children are U.S. citizens. Her husband, who is originally from Mexico, has status as a permanent U.S. resident. The van’s other occupants also were legally in the United States.
“This is a classic case of being arrested for ‘driving while Latino,’ ” said Rob McDuff, a Jackson attorney working on the case for MCJ.
Sheriff Ricky Adam is aware of the allegations but said his office has not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit.
“We’re looking forward to defending it,” Adam said. “We did everything the right way. Their story is not correct.”
The lawsuit accuses the deputies and Hancock County of violating the constitutional rights of the Martinez family through unlawful search and seizure and racial discrimination, and of breaking state laws against unlawful arrest and imprisonment.
The family seeks unspecified compensation for their pain and suffering, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and court costs. U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden is presiding over the case.
The lawsuit describes a family trip that pained and humiliated the Martinez family.
After pulling their van over on westbound Interstate 10, Latschar first asked if the Martinezes were legal U.S. residents. They produced their paperwork and he returned to his patrol car to run a check.
The youngest of the three children, a 10-year-old, began to wail almost immediately after Latschar pulled over the van and continued to cry throughout the ordeal. The child suffers from autism and anxiety.
Once the paperwork checked out, Latschar began questioning the couple about drugs. He also said it was his job to search for motorists trafficking drugs or smuggling illegal immigrants.
“Mr. Martinez said he was not smuggling drugs and that there were no drugs in the van,” the lawsuit says. “Defendant Latschar threatened to take away Mr. Martinez’s permanent residency card if he did not tell defendant Latschar where he was hiding drugs.”
Latschar searched the van’s interior, scattering the contents of suitcases and damaging artwork that was a gift to the grandmother. He thought the van’s undercarriage looked suspicious. A second deputy, Abe Long, arrived and also inspected the undercarriage.
After two hours on the roadside, Latschar ordered the Martinezes to follow him in their van to the Hancock County Public Safety Complex.
Stephanie Martinez, the children and the others were locked in a room in the complex. Her husband sat behind a locked gate while deputies inspected the van.
A second Martinez child began to weep, as did their grandmother. Stephanie Martinez called 911 about being locked in the room. Latscher then came and let them out.
Martinez had called the family’s immigration lawyer from the van as they drove to the sheriff’s office. The lawyer called Hancock County demanding the family’s release. She believes she spoke with sheriff’s Lt. William Covington, who said he authorized the search.
Two other unidentified deputies helped detain the Martinezes at the sheriff’s office, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuits says the family was finally released after deputies determined the van’s undercarriage had not been modified.
Only then did Latschar return their legal documents.
“Following the June 3, 2017 incident, the entire family has become fearful and mistrustful of law enforcement,” the lawsuit says.
“The Martinez children have experienced increased anxiety and fear when traveling. They have expressed fear that their father could be deported by law enforcement officers.
“ . . . Ms. Martinez worries frequently that her husband’s permanent residency could be at risk as the result of another abuse of authority by law enforcement. Ms. Martinez has lost her peace of mind as well as her trust in law enforcement.”
The lawsuit represents only one side of the case. Hancock County and the deputies are expected to file a response once they have reviewed the allegations.