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Havre Discrimination Case Against Border Patrol To Proceed

Martha Hernandez (left) and Ana Suda standing outside a gas station in Havre.
Brook Swaney
ACLU of Montana
The lawsuit claims Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were illegally detained for 40 minutes in 2016 at a gas station after they were heard speaking spanish.

The U.S. District Court in Great Falls will allow a lawsuit from two women who claimed they were detained for speaking spanish to proceed against U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection lawyers had argued the detention of two women in Havre four years ago didn’t show a pattern that could harm them in the future and asked for the case to be dismissed. Judge Brian Morris recently denied that request.

The lawsuit claims Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, both American citizens and Montana residents, were illegally detained for 40 minutes in 2016 at a gas station after agent Paul O'Neill heard them speaking Spanish.

Alex Rate is the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, which sued CBP last year.

“This lawsuit seeks to establish once and for all that law enforcement cannot use language as a reason to pull someone aside and ask them questions,” Rate says.

Rate says the women’s constitutional rights were violated. The lawsuit seeks damages for Suda and Hernandez and to permanently block CBP from stopping and detaining people on the basis of race, accent or language.

Rate says another case about a decade ago in Havre ruled that ethnic appearance was not sufficient to arrest or detain individuals.

While the lawsuit will move forward, the judge dismissed claims against the CBP agent in his personal capacity.

The case now moves into the discovery phase. The court is expected to set a trial date in coming months.