Suspicious Persons

07/30/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Maurice Jourdane Author, "Waves of Recovery" "The Struggle for the Health & Safety of Farm Workers: El Cortito"

On July 28, a federal court in Arizona issued an injunction against the controversial Arizona law that requires police to determine the immigration status of everyone lawfully stopped that the officer reasonably suspects is illegally in the United States. A federal judge held the Arizona law void because the power to control immigration lays with the federal government not individual states. She adopted the federal government position's that the Constitution and federal laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigrations policies.

In its ruling the court said, "Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked." In making the ruling, the court adopted the federal government's claim that the Arizona law will cause "detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens" based on one's race and a racial profile.

Like many, I have gone through life not particularly aware of detention based on a racial profile. My naivety recently changed, far from Arizona.

I am a white male who resides in California. Thus, I am not directly threatened by the Arizona law. In early July, with my wife Olivia and two friends, a retired San Diego high school principal and his wife a retired San Diego teacher, I was visiting my wife's family in Panama. On July 8, we were staying with my wife's aunt Yolanda in a Midwest Panama village, Atalaya. Olivia, her aunt and the retired educators dropped me off in nearby Santiago, a larger pueblo. I was jogging the five miles from Santiago to Olivia's aunt's home in Atalaya. During the steamy afternoon, wearing running shorts, a tank top and tennis shoes, I jogged through a second-generation rain forest, down the abandoned country road. In the rolling hills, I saw not a building, a person, or a vehicle. While running alone, I approached Atalaya. Out of nowhere, a forceful shout in Spanish shattered the quiet, "Stop."

My 5'7", 120 pound frame silently yielded to the command. Abruptly, a uniformed male who stood over six feet tall and carried well over 200 pounds, grabbed my left bicep in what felt like a vise-grip. The captor pushed me across the paved road and down a dirt road toward a stucco single-room building. He released my arm, and pointing to a worn wood bench, shouting, "sientese." (sit). Having grown up in Southeast Los Angeles, I learned at an early age to never even consider resisting an officer, especially when he is twice as large as me and carries a firearm on his hip. I Sat.

The interrogation began. Where are you from? Where are you going? Why are you running? Why should l believe you? The questions, interspersed with stares reflecting confidence that the interrogator knew I was lying, continued for maybe ten minutes. Each time I responded, the stocky officer stared, stone-faced, into my inches-away face. I apparently was not giving the detainer who, acting like some white Mississippi sheriff who has just detained an African-American suspected of accosting a white damsel, the answers he wanted. When I asked why he stopped me, the unformed captor stared but did not respond. Finally, the local officer grabbed a cell phone and called in the feared federales. A half hour later, I continued to sit on the primitive bench outside the stucco building and repeatedly gave the same honest answers to the repeated questions. Each time I responded to a question, the federales stared their tiny black pupils so vicious they clearly meant to show me, "We could blow your head off as easily as look at you." I recalled sitting as a judge in juvenile court and hearing witnesses testify the fight began after the victim "mad dogged" the defendant. Finally, one of the federales asked for my passport. I told him it was at the home of my wife's aunt. Again the mad-dog stares. The federal police obviously did not believe me. After the interrogators departed for places unknown, and returned an hour later, they told me they were taking me to jail in Santiago. I pleaded with them to allow me to join them in a trip to my wife's aunt's home where I would show them my passport. Perhaps realizing they had made a mistake, realizing that the only crime I had committed was being a white male running in a country where almost all residents are brown or black, the federales stuffed me into the rear of a vehicle marked Federal Security and accelerated into the countryside. The vehicle stopped at Yolanda's home on the road to the jail in Santiago. There, the officers met my wife's family, saw my passport and, without as much as a, "We apologize," and never telling me why I was stopped, climbed into their white pick-up truck and sped off.

Having been stopped for no reason other than my race, and having had to struggle not to show fear when subjected to the vicious stares, I did not have to be a psychologist to understand the danger of officer's using a racial profile when choosing who to detain. In Panama, whites may be disfavored because of the century of white control of the Canal Zone, culminating with the bombing of the Chorrillo barrio in Panama City. In Arizona, Latinos may be disfavored because of anxieties about the depressed job market.

In the United States, the Fourth Amendment permits a person's detention only when based on atrticuable facts creating a suspicion that a crime is occurring. Panama also prohibits a person's arbitrary seizure. I have been a civil rights lawyer for over 40 years and am a retired judge, yet I was detained for hours just because I was a white guy running through the countryside. If Arizona's anti-immigrant law had taken effect, how many law-abiding Latinos would be in effect barred, through the threat of lengthy detention and arrest, from running through the countryside while training for the Phoenix or San Diego Rock n' Roll Marathon, or from walking or driving to a nearby market to buy milk for their citizen children. Until I was detained for hours, just because I fit a racial profile, I was not familiar with the stress and tension, and stares of hatred uniformed officers can cast on law-abiding suspects who fit the racial profile of a disfavored race. Fortunately, the court injunction in Arizona confirmed that we live in a country where thoughtful judges look to the constitution to protect all of us, brown, white, black, Asian, and indigenous, from race-based seizure.