Migrant Justice protesting outside the Chittenden County Sheriff's Department
The Chittenden County sheriff has cleared a deputy involved in the November detainment of a 21-year-old farmworker.
Advocacy group Migrant Justice had accused Deputy Jeffry Turner of violating the department's policies on fair and impartial policing during a November 22 traffic stop, arguing that he had no reason to inquire about Luis Ulloa’s immigration status or prolong the stop until federal authorities arrived.
But Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin said Friday that Turner's actions were justified because he was concerned that he was dealing with a potential human trafficking situation.
“There is no evidence that supports the contention that Deputy Sheriff Turner’s purpose in dealing with the individuals in the vehicle (that he had lawfully stopped) was to enforce federal immigration law,” McLaughlin wrote in a six-page report released Friday afternoon.
Migrant Justice “unequivocally” denounced the sheriff’s conclusion. “We are actively pursuing avenues for independent investigation and legal remedy,” the organization wrote in a statement Friday, noting that Ulloa has since been deported.
McLaughlin's report is based solely on Turner's recollection of the stop. The sheriff said he attempted to also interview the vehicle's passengers, but three declined and the fourth did not respond.
The report says Turner pulled over the vehicle for driving more than 30 miles an hour over the speed limit on Interstate 89. The driver, Ulloa’s cousin, told Turner that he was aware he was going “a little too fast,” the report says. Ulloa and two women were also in the vehicle.
When Turner asked for the driver’s identification, insurance and registration, the driver responded that “he did not have anything further to say to the officer,” the report says. Meanwhile, the car’s two backseat passengers — Ulloa and his girlfriend — “avert[ed] their gazes” and remained “unresponsive” to the deputy's questions, McLaughlin wrote.
A woman in the passenger's seat eventually said none of the car's occupants could legally drive the car from the scene, the report says, so Turner sought to determine their identities. The two women shared their names and dates of birth, and the men provided Mexican passports.
Once Turner confirmed the car was not registered to any of them, he called U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the report says. The deputy later explained that because the vehicle was heading south within 40 miles of Canada, the passengers' "suspicious" actions led him to believe he may be dealing with an illegal crossing or smuggling operation.
The federal authorities questioned both men and took Ulloa into custody, the report says, advising that he was a “re-entry felon” who was previously deported and had come back into the U.S. illegally.
None of the three other passengers were detained. Ulloa's cousin was given a warning for speeding and ticketed for not having a license. A licensed driver came to the scene to drive them home.
File: Colin Flanders
Protestors holding a photo of Luis Ulloa, who has been deported to Mexico
Fair and impartial policing policies were created to discourage cops from collaborating with immigration authorities in most situations. The sheriff's department's policy says that officers cannot facilitate the detention of anyone known or suspected to be undocumented, nor can they “prolong” stops for the purpose of allowing federal authorities to investigate immigration matters.
But Turner's "justifiable" suspicion that the car's passengers may have been involved in federal crimes meant he was right to seek assistance from the feds, McLaughlin wrote. He added that the public can "rest assured" he would fire any officer found to have engaged in "racist, biased or discriminatory behavior."
Migrant Justice organized a protest outside the sheriff’s department two weeks after Ulloa’s detainment to demand that McLaughlin conduct a full and transparent investigation. In its statement, the group said it plans to continue pushing for accountability.
“We believe that the truth will prevail,” the group wrote.