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Women detained in Havre by border agent after speaking Spanish sue


Last updated 2/14/2019 at 3:44pm

Brooke Swaney/ACLU of Montana via AP

Martha Hernandez, left, and Ana Suda pose Jan. 19 in front of a convenience store in Havre where they say they were detained by a U.S Border Patrol agent for speaking Spanish last year. The women have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and the border agent and are seeking a judge's order barring U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials from stopping or detaining people based on race, accent or language.


Associated Press

HELENA - Two Montana women questioned by a U.S. border agent who overheard them speaking Spanish in a convenience store sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection today, saying the agent illegally detained them without reason.

The agent held Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez for 40 minutes in a parking lot in Havre in May 2018 without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Great Falls.

His only reason for doing so, they said, was because they were taking in Spanish while waiting in line to buy milk and eggs.

Suda took a video of the parking lot encounter with CBP Agent Paul O'Neal in which she asks him why he wanted their identifications.

"Ma'am, the reason I asked you for your ID is because I came in here and I saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here," O'Neal said in the video.

CBP spokesman Jason Givens said Thursday the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The women's ACLU lawyers say O'Neal should have let them go as soon as they identified themselves as U.S. citizens, but he instead detained them in violation of the Fourth Amendment barring unreasonable searches and seizures.

The lawsuit also claims the agent targeted them based on their race in violation of the Fifth Amendment's due process protections.

O'Neal and later his supervisor made it clear through their words and actions that the women weren't free to leave the parking lot, ACLU attorney Alex Rate wrote in the lawsuit.

"Speaking Spanish does not establish reasonable suspicion justifying a stop and detention, much less probable cause for an arrest," Rate wrote.

Suda and Hernandez are asking for an unspecified amount of money in compensation, punitive damages and a judge's order barring border officials from stopping or detaining anyone based on race, accent or language.

Suda was born in Texas and moved to Montana with her husband in 2014. Hernandez was born in California and has been living in Montana since 2010. Both are certified nursing assistants who work at an assisted-living center.

In 2017, border patrol agents in the Havre sector made 39 arrests. Eleven of the people arrested were Mexican.


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