ACLU, Northwood police settle immigration suit

Monitor staff
Published: 8/27/2019 2:57:37 PM

The ACLU and the Northwood Police Department have reached a settlement after a 26-year-old man, a legal resident of the United States, was detained last year for more than two hours because police suspected he was an undocumented immigrant.

The ACLU announced the decision Tuesday in a press release, which also revealed that a similar settlement had been reached in Exeter on the same day. Both individuals, the ACLU said, had been targeted because of their race.

Reached by phone, ACLU legal director Gilles Bissonnette said the settlement could heighten awareness about proper police procedures for dealing with an issue that has been headline news in recent years.

“It’s a positive development in the state with respect to immigration rights,” Bissonnette said. “What this case is all about at the end of the day, and in Exeter, is making sure police don’t arrest people simply because they believe they’re an undocumented immigrant. It’s not their job, and the settlement confirmed that.”

Plaintiff Johoani Velasco Perea was awarded $12,500. The Northwood Police Department denied any culpability. A statement released by Brian Cullen, the lawyer who represented three specific Northwood officers – Patrick Cremin, Daniel Gilon and Joseph Dyrkacz – stated that Northwood officers were justified when they stopped Velasco Perea and two other Hispanic men.

“We believe that the officers acted appropriately in responding to what appeared to be suspicious activity at a local business,” Cullen said in his statement to the Monitor.

The statement did not specify what suspicious activity had taken place.

The press release continued: “The interplay between state and federal authorities on issues of immigration is complex and the (Northwood police) department has adopted policies and training to ensure that Northwood continues to provide the best service and follows all federal, state and local laws and guidelines on enforcing immigration law.”

Velasco Perea came to the United State from Mexico as a little boy and is a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He lives in North Carolina and was in New Hampshire last fall, sent by his employer to build a carport at Harding Metals, Inc., in Northwood.

According to court documents released by Bissonnette, Velasco Perea and two other Hispanic men were walking back to Hardin Metals late on Sept. 21 of last year after buying food from a nearby convenience store. They were detained by police.

“Mr. Velasco Perea showed the officers a photograph and a video of their work building a carport inside Harding Metals, Inc.,” the complaint read. “Rather than release Mr. Velasco Perea given the absence of criminal behavior, the department then continued to detain Mr. Velasco Perea based on the suspicion that he was undocumented. There was no basis for that suspicion other than his perceived Hispanic race.”

Velasco Perea showed officers a valid driver’s license, issued from his home state of North Carolina, the complaint read. Later, police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which arrived at 10:30 p.m. and verified that Velasco Perea was in the country lawfully, the complaint read.

The detention lasted a total of two hours and 15 minutes, the complaint said.

“The settlement,” Bissonnette said by phone, “confirmed that local New Hampshire police departments should not be stopping, searching, detaining or arresting someone based solely on the suspicion that the person is undocumented. Being undocumented is not a crime. The settlements of these cases confirm that legal principle.”

Bissonnette would not reveal who first made contact with the ACLU after last year’s incident.

“We’ve done a lot of advocacy,” Bissonnette said, “and that from time to time causes an individual who feels their civil rights have been violated to reach out to us, and that is how we develop our cases.”

Bissonnette said both lawsuits, against police in Northwood and Exeter, were filed at the same time.

“I read the police report, and I was very concerned,” Bissonnette told the Monitor.

The Northwood case represented the third lawsuit filed by the ACLU-New Hampshire’s new Immigration Rights Project, Bissonnette said in his ACLU report. The ACLU website described the project as “dedicated to providing select immigration legal services and to promoting the rights of detained immigrants in New Hampshire.”

Bissonnette said the two lawsuits were not connected to the tone and policies coming out of Washington, D.C., the past two years. He also said he was grateful for the cooperation he received from the Northwood and Exeter police forces.

“I don’t think what has occurred is the result necessarily of animosity or deep-seated prejudice,” Bissonnette said. “They are evidence of a lack of awareness. Our reason for bringing theses cases was to vindicate the rights of clients so the police know where the lines are.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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