In a settlement reached Tuesday with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the U.S. Border Patrol has committed to sharing records of every traffic stop it makes in Washington's Olympic Peninsula for 18 months.
The settlement resulted from a lawsuit the rights groups filed that said agents were racially profiling people they pulled over.
In the settlement, the agency also agreed to retrain its agents stationed on the Olympic Peninsula on the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and requires warrants, federal court filings show. The agency also will write a letter reaffirming agents must adhere to the protections provided by the amendment when they are on patrol.
The Border Patrol, though, admits no wrongdoing in the settlement.
"This agreement confirms that Border Patrol can't pull over a vehicle because of the driver's race or ethnicity or simply because the person lives in proximity to the border," said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "We hope that the reporting requirements and the additional training will ultimately provide greater accountability, and restore a measure of dignity for folks who live in this region."
Every six months for 18 months, the Border Patrol will provide the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project copies of the forms its agents must fill out after every traffic stop in the Olympic Peninsula. Personal information of the people contacted, though, will be redacted.
The government's attorneys sought a settlement with the groups after a judge denied their motion to dismiss the case, Adams said.
"This settlement is confirmation that we can both ensure the safety of our borders and protect all members of our communities in a constitutional manner," U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement. "I appreciate the dedication and hard work of the Border Patrol, who are both the first line of defense against danger and the first to welcome millions of our visitors."
Durkan's office said the settlement saves the government a lengthy court case.
Washington state is not the only northern border state where tensions have arisen from Border Patrol security practices, and the lawsuit highlights problems when a local or federal law enforcement officer uses traffic stops as a tool of immigration enforcement, Cecillia D. Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
Similar complaints have been voiced in New York, Wang said.
"Whenever you have any kind of local or federal agents ferret out people on patrol ... you're going to see a pattern of civil rights abuses. You can't rely on race and appearance in order to determine immigration status," she said.
The lawsuit in Washington state stems from tensions between immigrants and the expanded presence of Border Patrol agents on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, which shares no land border with Canada.
The complaint, though, was brought by three American citizens who were questioned by the Border Patrol.
One of the plaintiffs, 19-year-old Ismael Ramos Contreras of Forks, was with a group of friends when four agents pulled them over. The lawsuit says one of the agents tried to take the keys out of the ignition and interrogated the teenagers but never provided a reason for the stop.
Ramos said that in a separate incident, an agent asked for his immigration status outside a courthouse in Forks.
"At first I thought it was funny," Ramos said. "But once it happened twice, I thought this is serious. This is not OK. I don't want to keep getting stopped or questioned about my nationality or citizenship."
The Olympic Peninsula is home to rural towns around the edge of the 1,441-square-mile Olympic National Park. Many immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala have moved there to work in the forests picking salal, an ornamental leaf. The peninsula sits across from Canada's Vancouver Island, separated by the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The lawsuit sought a class-action status, but that was dropped in lieu of the settlement.
The other two named plaintiffs work as prison guards on the Olympic Peninsula. One of them, Ernest Grimes, said a Border Patrol agent pulled him over in 2011 with his hand on his weapon while yelling at him to roll down his window. The agent provided no reason for the traffic stop while he interrogated Grimes about his immigration status, the lawsuit alleges. Grimes, who is black, was wearing his guard uniform at the time.
In August, the chief of the Border Patrol's sector that covers western Washington was transferred out of the area, according to the Bellingham Herald. No reason was given.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.