Suda and Hernandez v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Suda v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, No. 4:19-cv-00010-BMM, (D. Mont., filed Feb. 14, 2019)

On May 16, 2018, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were shopping at a convenience store in the small town of Havre, Montana, where both reside, when they were seized and detained by CBP Agent Paul O’Neill. While in the checkout line, Ms. Hernandez gave a friendly hello to Defendant O’Neill who was in line behind them. He responded by asking the two women where they were born. Although Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez told the agent they were U.S. citizens, born in Texas and California, respectively, Defendant O’Neill proceeded to detain them. Even after giving Defendant O’Neill their Montana driver’s licenses, they were detained for forty minutes. The only reason both Defendant O’Neill and his supervisor subsequently gave for their detention was that Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez were speaking Spanish.

On February 14, 2019, the ACLU of Montana filed an action against CBP and its agents for violations of Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The complaint alleges that Defendant O’Neill stated he had asked for identification “because I came in [the convenience store] and saw that you guys are speaking Spanish which is very unheard of up here.” Defendant O’Neill’s supervisor confirmed that the women had been singled out for speaking Spanish and specifically admitted that CBP doesn’t detain individuals for speaking French.

The complaint alleges that other Latinos in the community similarly have been targeted by CBP agents. The suit names as defendants CBP, its Commissioner, Defendant O’Neal, and 25 “John Doe” agents. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief aimed at preventing CBP officers from stopping and detaining individuals solely on the basis of race, accent, and/or speaking Spanish. The Plaintiffs also seek compensatory and punitive damages pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The Plaintiffs amended their complaint to add claims of negligence and false arrest under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

The government, which is representing all the defendants except for Defendant O’Neal, filed a motion to dismiss on April 19, 2019. Defendant O’Neal, through private counsel, submitted a motion to dismiss the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief on June 4, 2019. Defendant O’Neal did not seek dismissal of the Bivens claim for damages. Plaintiffs amended their complaint on January 29, 2020. The district court denied Defendant O’Neal’s motion to dismiss and denied in part and granted in part the government’s motion to dismiss on February 26, 2020. The court found that Plaintiffs had standing to seek injunctive relief and that Plaintiffs’ claims for declaratory relief are ripe. The court dismissed Plaintiffs’ damages claims against the defendants in their official capacity. Plaintiffs’ FTCA claims for damages survive.

The parties have now begun discovery, which is to conclude by December 1, 2020. A jury trial has been set for April 27, 2021.

Counsel: ACLU Immigrant Rights Project, ACLU of Montana; Crowley Fleck

Contact: Alex Rate | ACLU of Montana Foundation, Inc. | 406.203.3375 | ratea@aclumontana.org