ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- State Motor Transportation Division officers are being accused of targeting African-Americans for inspections, searches and detention at the Lordsburg port of entry.
The lawsuit filed April 20 in federal court in Las Cruces by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico stems from an Aug. 15, 2008 incident involving an Altadena, Calif., truck driver.
The lawsuit alleges MTD officer Ben Strain cited Curtis Blackwell for carrying alcohol in a commercial vehicle, even though the containers were unopened.
Two Las Cruces attorneys subsequently found evidence that MTD officers in the Lordsburg district stopped and booked a disproportionately high number of African-Americans compared to truck drivers in general, the ACLU said.
Peter Olson, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which includes the division, had no comment Friday.
"We don't feel it's appropriate to talk about pending litigation,'' he said. "That's why we have hearings before a judge.''
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. It also asks that the citation be removed from Blackwell's driving record and declared unconstitutional and that he be refunded a $250 fine.
Nearly every truck driver charged in federal court after being arrested by an MTD officer in Lordsburg in recent years has been black, the lawsuit alleges.
"It's pretty striking,'' said ACLU executive director Peter Simonson of Albuquerque.
Blackwell's experience confirmed longstanding suspicions "race played an improper role in vehicle inspections at the Lordsburg station,'' Michael Lilley, one of the attorneys filing the lawsuit, said in a news release.
The lawsuit alleges Strain stopped Blackwell at least in part because of race, then inspected everything from the truck's lights and brakes to its interior.
According to the lawsuit:
Strain expressed suspicion Blackwell used drugs, which Blackwell denied. The search found no drugs, but the officer found an unopened bottle of liquor and unopened beer in a box accessible only from outside the truck.
He removed the truck from service for 24 hours, saying the alcohol violated federal Department of Transportation standards. He also ordered a breath-alcohol test that found no indication Blackwell had been drinking.
Strain cited Blackwell for carrying alcohol in a commercial vehicle, writing a $250 fine when it was actually $200. The citation included a notice that refusal to sign it would require immediate detention until a court appearance. Strain did not tell Blackwell he could pay the fine or contest the ticket in court without being detained.
The ACLU alleges Strain violated Blackwell's due process rights by pressuring him to "sign his guilt'' on the citation under threat of arrest and seizure of his truck. Blackwell signed and later paid the $250 under protest.
While his truck was out of service, Blackwell saw Strain and other MTD officers single out black drivers for inspection.
The ACLU found that between April 7, 2005, and March 19, 2008, about 5 percent of those booked into the Hidalgo County jail in Lordsburg were black, but alleges 20 percent of the jail's bookings by the MTD during that period were blacks and 23 percent of the truck drivers booked were blacks. About 2 percent of people booked by other law enforcement agencies were black.
Simonson said targeting people by race "is an unproductive, not to mention unconstitutional, way to be carrying out investigations.''
Studies of traffic stops and searches show minorities are no more likely than whites to be involved in criminal activity, he said.
"I think one of the ironic things about a situation like this is targeting people on the basis of race alienates a certain segment of the community and contributes very little if anything to the effectiveness of criminal investigations,'' Simonson said.
The lawsuit names the state, DPS Secretary John Denko; MTD head Forrest Smith; MTD Capt. Tim Labier, who heads the area that includes Lordsburg; and Strain.