Grass-roots Hispanic organizations want a stronger voice on a task force examining racial fairness in the legal system.
Attorney and Hispanic spokesman Michael N. Martinez spent 90 minutes outlining biased treatment of Hispanics in the legal system before requesting seats on the panel.Several members of the Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Legal System bristled at the implication that Hispanics are not well represented on the panel. Others were offended when Martinez said that it would be easy for the task force to ignore those who want to challenge the system. Although many of the panelists are judges and attorneys, they said they have no vested interest in protecting the system.
"That (unfairness) is the reason we formed the task force," said 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Andrew Valdez.
Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman responded testily to the suggestion that the task force wasn't taking problems seriously. "Our research agenda includes everything you've covered and more. But we have to have data convincing to people who don't think it's a problem."
While several members of the task force are Hispanic, most of them work for the legal system. La Raza and Image de Utah want representation of their own, including formation of a 15-member Hispanic subcommittee. The task force said it would consider the request.
Valdez was among Hispanic panelists who didn't like being told they don't represent "grassroots" Hispanics. "I wasn't born in a courtroom," he said.
The charges of racial bias ranged from language barriers to harsher charges for minority members to harsher sentences based on race.
Martinez focused his often-biting indictment of treatment of Hispanics on specific cases. His conclusion?
"Every day that goes by, we're subjected to more harassment," he said.
"We're not here to stick up for illegals who commit crime. And if they do commit crime, it hurts our community more if you just deport them and they come back and do it again. We're not sticking up for any kind of crime or asking for different treatment. All we want is equal justice under the law."
Among his examples of ethnic abuse:
- A Hispanic waitress was pulled over and later forced to leave her car and walk home alone at 3 a.m. Martinez said the policeman told him he expected her to drive the car anyway, and waited to see if she would. He didn't offer her a ride or call anyone in her behalf. A judge dismissed the ticket because there was no probable cause to pull her over.
- In a well-publicized raid, well-armed officers from a variety of agencies including immigration and the FBI, carrying automatic weapons and accompanied by police dogs, arrested 80 people at a local Hispanic eatery. Only one charge resulted from the raid, and that charge was later dismissed.
"This (kind of action) wasn't by random. This is targeted," Martinez said. "The message is that it's OK to do this. And they do this."
- Court officials in Weber County agreed to consider illegal aliens a flight risk and deny bail, he said. While admitting that such a meeting took place, the charge all judges participated was challenged by task force member 2nd District Court Judge W. Brent West, who said he doesn't do that.
- A Logan woman who applied for a Utah driver's license and presented a false ID card, a misdemeanor under state law, was charged with third-degree felony forgery and jailed for 18 days without a preliminary hearing. Although the judge and prosecutor knew Martinez was her attorney, he wasn't told about the preliminary hearing, and a court-appointed lawyer was named. The judge later recused himself and another judge dismissed the felony charge.
- In Summit County, Martinez said Hispanics were pulled over for broken windshields, then charged with forgery or having false documents. They were reportedly told if they'd plead guilty - guilty or not - they'd just be deported. It's a way of clearing aliens out, Martinez said, but the crime is clearly a misdemeanor and the system is unethical.
"Those aren't rare occurrences. It's not a rarity in this state," Martinez said.