State bias-free policy under scrutiny

VERMONT — In the wake of a September incident in which Vermont State Police detained illegal immigrants identified in a traffic stop, the role of state law enforcement in federal immigration enforcement has come under scrutiny.

The incident at hand was a traffic stop on I-89 that led to the detention of two migrant farmworkers and an investigation of Trooper Jared Hatch, the officer involved.

Danilo Lopez and cousin Antonio Meza-Sandoval, the two passengers in the car, were released from U.S. Border Patrol custody later that day, and Hatch was cleared in mid-October following a State Police Advisory Commission review. The review found that Hatch had not been in violation of state police policy regarding immigration law enforcement, as he conducted the traffic stop after clocking the driver (a native Vermonter) at a speed of 88 mph in a 65 mph zone.

The review also cited Hatch’s training in drug-related policing, which came into play when he detected nervousness, failure to make eye contact and inconsistent answers upon questioning.

The review further determined that, as the passengers were not witnesses or victims of a crime, it was “not improper for Trooper Hatch to ask about immigration status or to report the immigration status of the passengers to the appropriate authorities.”

Vermont State Police bias-free policing policy states that “all enforcement actions by law enforcement officers, such as investigative detentions, traffic stops, arrests, searches and seizures, etc., must be based on reasonable suspicion, probable cause or other required standards … officers will not consider race, ethnicity, or other personal criteria in establishing either reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”

Cheryl Connor, a Bridport dairy farmer and co-convener of the Addison Migrant Farm Worker Coalition, said local troopers generally will not ask for the immigration status of a farmworker driving a farm vehicle between fields, even on a state highway — which she said allows farmworkers the flexibility they need to do their jobs.

VSP Public Information Officer Stephanie Dasaro said the agency is reviewing its bias-free policy, which she said is a routine procedure, generally undertaken after the agency receives a complaint regarding a specific policy.

Dasaro said the agency has had a bias-free policing policy since 2003, and it was revised in 2009 and again this year.

The policy is taught as part of routine training at the State Police academy, and Dasaro said it is reinforced in VSP continuing education programs.

Lt. Gary Genova, head of the New Haven VSP barracks, did not comment on how the policy is taught to troopers working in Addison County. Instead he provided press statements from VSP Director Col. Tom L’Esperance.

“The dialogue regarding immigration needs to continue, so that the Vermont State Police can ensure the fair and humane treatment of all people living and working in Vermont while providing professional, accountable, and compassionate law enforcement services,” said L’Esperance in an October written statement to the Burlington Free Press and this week passed on by VSP officials to the Independent.

Members of the Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Solidarity Project, for their part, say that the current VSP policies are not good enough to protect undocumented workers in the state, and are urging lawmakers to provide stronger guidance on the issue.

An Oct. 14 letter from the group to Gov. Peter Shumlin cites a recent, strict immigration law in Alabama that extends the ability to detain people based on immigration status to local police agencies. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week that the agency was working with the Department of Justice to challenge the law, alleging that it oversteps state powers.

The Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Solidarity Project letter urged Shumlin to set a counterexample to Alabama’s policy.

“While the governor of Alabama models an inhumane, unjust and discriminatory reaction to the broken federal immigration system we, here in Vermont, have an opportunity and obligation for a completely different way forward.”

Following the September incident, Shumlin himself said that due to shortages of labor on Vermont farms, it’s not in the state’s interest to rigorously enforce federal immigration laws.

“We have always had a policy in Vermont where we kind of look the other way as much as we can,” he told WPTZ-TV. “(Our farms) can’t survive without workers from outside America. It’s just the way it is.”

Solidarity Project officials urged Shumlin to set the tone for local and state law enforcement reform.

“We acknowledge the need for state troopers to have even more clarity, direction and guidelines,” said the letter, “and we seek to work with you to that end.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.


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