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Suit charges MHP with illegally stopping immigrants

(BUTTE)- A human rights group is accusing the Montana Highway Patrol of illegally checking the immigration status of Hispanic drivers who are pulled over for routine traffic violations. 

The civil suit was filed Monday against Montana Highway Patrol Chief Tom Butler and Attorney General Tim Fox on behalf of several individuals by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance in U.S. District Court. 

The 49-page suit accuses the state of implementing "a custom, policy and practice of seizing Latino residents and visitors of Montana and prolonging their detention longer than necessary" to check their immigration status. The Alliance says that violates both the drivers and their passengers rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.

The suit complains MHP has been "seizing" immigrants on their own "prerogative" before actually contacting the agencies under the Department of Homeland Security. The Alliance maintains MHP has no legal authority to hold people for violating federal immigration law, with troopers basing their suspicion on race. The suit argues MHP doesn't detain white, non-Latinos to check for immigration status. 

The Alliance says the stops have been "occurring with great frequency for at least three years."

The suit also raises the issue of former MHP Chief Administrator Kenton Hickethier, who left the force last summer amid complaints he had ordered officers to arrest illegal aliens. 

The state offered no immediate comment on the suit and has 21-days to file its reply. 

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