Lawsuit Claims US Citizen Illegally Held in Jail Because of His Latino Name and Skin Color

A Honduras-born US citizen was illegally jailed in Louisiana because a sheriff’s office thought he was in the country illegally, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states.

The ACLU of Louisiana filed a lawsuit in Baton Rouge on behalf of Ramon Torres, who on August 31, 2018 was arrested and detained for four days by the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office. The suit states Torres was arrested by Louisiana State Police officer Jarrod Miles after he suspected Torres was driving while intoxicated. Torres refused a breath test and was taken to Ascension Parish Jail for booking.

The lawsuit states that when arrested Torres had a Security Passport issued by the Alliance Safety Council, which requires a social security number, and a valid driver’s license issued by the State of Louisiana. On September 1, 2018, a judge released Torres on the DWI charge, but authorities at the sheriff’s office did not release him.

Torres’s co-worker Cameron Moore called the sheriff's office to ask about Torres’ release when an officer said he was being detained for being in the country illegally. Torres was born in Honduras in 1988 and came to the US with his family when he was a small child. In February 2009, Torres became a citizen of the US, the lawsuit states.

Moore provided Torres’ documents to the sheriff’s office that afternoon, including a Certificate of Naturalization issued by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, Torres’ social security card, his birth certificate issued by the Republic of Honduras, and his US passport. Despite this, Torres was held at the Ascension Parish Jail until September 4, 2018, according to the lawsuit.

“Defendants had no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that Mr. Torres was a noncitizen subject to removal from the United States. Any basis that Defendants had to suspect that Mr. Torres was a removable noncitizen was rebutted by the facts known to them and available to them that Mr. Torres is a U.S. citizen,” the suit read.

Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU of Louisiana legal director, said Torres was racially profiled because he is Latino.

“Ramon Torres was held in jail for four days simply because he has brown skin and a Latino name,” Schwartzmann said in a statement. “This is racial profiling, which is unconstitutional and deeply harmful to our communities. What happened to Mr. Torres is inexcusable. Locking people up based on race or ethnicity is antithetical to our most cherished American values.”

“The increasing national rhetoric of fear and racism around immigration is tearing apart our local communities,” Schwartzmann continued. “We’re suing on Mr. Torres’ behalf to stop these unconstitutional practices and to uphold the basic civil rights of all people.”

The lawsuit lists Sheriff Bobby Webre and more than a dozen members of Ascension Parish Jail staff as defendants. In a statement to NBC News, Webre said he has yet to be served with the suit and only learned about it following an ACLU news release.

"While I have yet to be served this lawsuit, I dispute these press claims by ACLU lawyers and will offer a rigorous defense in court," Webre told the news station.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that Webre and the staff’s actions were unconstitutional. It also seeks unspecified damages to compensate Torres.

“Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office is tasked with enforcing the law and protecting our community; however, they have violated our most sacred law, the Constitution, in order to attack our own citizens based on an extreme and racist anti-immigrant agenda,” James Bullman, cooperating counsel with the ACLU of Louisiana, said in a statement.

In June, the ACLU of Southern California filed a petition on behalf of an activist who was arrested in California two days after reading a poem at a public forum criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Jose Omar Bello Reyes, 22, read his poem titled “Dear America” at a public forum on May 15 in Bakersfield, California. The poem was about Reyes’ interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The petition states that Bello was arrested by ICE agents 36 hours after the reading.

“His arrest and detention violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on government retaliation for protected speech and its related prohibition on viewpoint discrimination,” the petition read. “If left unaddressed, ICE’s actions will chill immigrant speakers from sharing criticisms of the agency at the very same time that its escalating aggression and increasing use of detention are at the center of public debate.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.