Chapel Hill News

Traffic checkpoints near schools get closer look amid rising immigrant fear

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, executive director of El Centro Hispano, and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue answer questions during a Faith ID registration drive Saturday, June 24, 2016, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill. The cards provide a form of identification for those without other forms of photo ID recognized in North Carolina. El Centro Hispano has enrolled about 1,800 people in the program.
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, executive director of El Centro Hispano, and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue answer questions during a Faith ID registration drive Saturday, June 24, 2016, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill. The cards provide a form of identification for those without other forms of photo ID recognized in North Carolina. El Centro Hispano has enrolled about 1,800 people in the program.

A sheriff’s checkpoint near a school that raised concern last week in Durham County might not have happened in neighboring Orange or Wake counties, whose sheriff’s offices say they avoid checkpoints near schools.

In Orange County, the sheriff’s office and the Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough police departments agreed after hearing concerns last summer not to hold checkpoints near schools when parents are dropping off and picking up children, sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jamie Sykes said.

In Wake County, Sheriff Donnie Harrison would not rule out holding a checkpoint near a school, but on Friday said, “I don’t know of one since I’ve been here.” Harrison has been sheriff since 2002.

The late-afternoon Feb. 20 checkpoint at Hamlin Road and Industrial Drive in Durham County became an issue after Brian Callaway, the coordinator of energy and sustainability at Durham Public Schools, sent an email about it to the sheriff, police chief, school board members and media outlets. The nearby School for Creative Studies has 22 percent Hispanic enrollment.

“Considering that Immigration and Customs Enforcement have deported individuals for infractions as minor as license violations, this means that your officers’ actions are directly threatening the livelihoods of people who are residing and working in our community,” Callaway wrote. “I reckon that I am not alone when I say that I do not want my tax dollars being utilized locally in a method that directly threatens peaceful members of our own community.”

In an interview, Durham school board Chairman Mike Lee said he was also troubled by the checkpoint near a school.

“In today’s political climate, it’s kind of scary to have that sort of thing when parents are picking up their children,” Lee said. “We just can’t support that.”

Lee said he understands the Sheriff’s Office isn’t setting up roadblocks to capture people in the country illegally. But he said such checkpoints can lead to minor traffic offenses, then serious consequences.

“It does concern me that illegal immigrants may feel unsafe around our schools,” he said. “We support all of our students, no matter what their background.”

On Wednesday, Tamara Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, said the department held the checkpoint in response to speeding complaints. A September 2016 traffic enforcement action near Jordan High School also followed complaints about speeding during hours of peak pedestrian traffic, she said.

By Friday afternoon, Gibbs said the department was taking a closer look at the practice.

“This agency is definitely having discussions about the fear that is in this community,” she said, “and how we can better help people feel safe ... feel they are not being hunted.”

About checkpoints

Motor vehicle checkpoints are controversial, Jeffrey Welty, an expert in criminal law and procedure, wrote in a 2010 UNC School of Government bulletin.

In North Carolina, state law allows checkpoints to detect impaired driving and other violations of motor-vehicle laws. Motor-vehicle checkpoints may not be used for general crime control, he wrote.

At least one media outlet last week reported that a sheriff’s deputy had allegedly told people the Feb. 20 checkpoint was in response to break-ins in the area.

But Gibbs said the deputy told her that’s not what he said.

“He was very firm with me,” Gibbs said. “The motivation for that checkpoint was not that, because that would be illegal. Traffic enforcement is the law.”

State law requires checkpoints be placed randomly or where “statistically indicated,” which Welty interpreted as meaning the law enforcement agency has reason to believe an area has “more problems than other locations ‘with unlicensed or unregistered drivers,’ impaired drivers or motor-vehicle violations in general.”

Raul Pinto, an immigration attorney at the N.C. Justice Center, said that has not kept some law enforcement agencies in North Carolina from setting up motor-vehicle checkpoints in majority-minority communities, like outside an apartment complex or mobile home park.

“I don’t think any court has defined what ‘statistically indicated’ means,” he said.

License and registration

What happens when a driver can’t produce his or her license and registration?

According to the six Durham and Orange law enforcement agencies contacted, the process works the same way.

Officers have some discretion. People who can’t comply typically get a verbal or written warning – say, if the officer believes they have a license, just not with them – or a citation (ticket).

“By law the deputy can bring the driver without a license before a magistrate, but the agency tries to avoid that by asking for other forms of ID,” Gibbs said.

One form being used in Orange and Durham counties is the Faith ID, an unofficial alternative ID promoted by Durham-based El Centro Hispano (The Hispanic Center) after the state stopped accepting the matricula consular, a Mexican ID card that the FBI said was subject to fraud and forgery.

El Centro has enrolled about 1,800 people in the Faith ID program, which requires proof of identification and address, said director Pilar Rocha-Goldberg.

Even when drivers can’t comply, checkpoints rarely lead to immigration problems.

Some departments, such as Chapel Hill, added that their officers are prohibited from questioning people about their immigration status during a routine encounter such as a traffic stop and from detaining people for the purpose of verifying their immigration status.

The exception to notifying immigration officials stemming from a checkpoint occurs when an officer arrests someone upon evidence of a crime or on a warrant.

Once a person is booked in the jail in Durham County, for example, Gibbs said, the person is fingerprinted and a set of prints is sent to the State Bureau of Investigation.

If the person is wanted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the system flags the fingerprints and a technician sends a notice of arrest to ICE, which can ask the jail to detain the person.

If no detainer is issued, the person may leave the jail on bond or upon a magistrate or judge’s order.

If a detainer is received, the person will remain in jail until his or her case is adjudicated, Gibbs said.

Once all charges are adjudicated, the arresting agency notifies ICE, which has a 48 hour deadline in which to take custody, after which the detainee is released, she said.

Community meeting

On Sunday, March 5, Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) and the N.C. Congress of Latino Organizations will hold a public meeting with the sheriff, police and elected leaders to talk about “the way authorities will interact with immigrants in the current environment,” the groups said in a news release.

The meeting runs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 810 W. Chapel Hill St. in Durham.

Rocha-Goldberg, meanwhile, said El Centro Hispano plans to form task forces soon to focus on law enforcement issues affecting immigrants in Durham and Orange counties.

The group also hopes to talk with the Durham County Sheriff’s Office about not holding future checkpoint near schools, as it did with Orange County’s law-enforcement agencies.

“They found they can do their jobs without the checkpoints,” she said. “They were getting the opposite effect they were looking for. People were scared.”

Staff writer Gregory Childress contributed to this story.

Schultz: 919-829-8950; @thedurhamnews

Checkpoint statistics

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office held four checkpoints Feb. 20.

In addition to the Hamlin Road/Industrial Drive checkpoint, they were at Glover Road/Angier Avenue, Glover Road/Clinton Road and U.S. 70/Marley Drive.

The office issued a total of

▪ 5 verbal warnings

▪ 9 written warnings

▪ 8 citations

Those warned or cited broke down this way:

▪ 3 Hispanic males

▪ 3 Hispanic females

▪ 5 black males

▪ 6 black females

▪ 3 white males

▪ 2 white females

Source: Durham County Sheriff’s Office