PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Federal prosecutors dismissed a felony charge against a Guatemalan who was arrested after coming to the attention of Border Patrol agents for speaking Spanish in public in a case that raised concerns about racial profiling.
The Border Patrol acknowledged in a court document that suspicions about members of a family that included Mateo Carmelo-Bartolo were aroused because they appeared to be of “Central-American origin” and because they spoke Spanish while shopping at a Goodwill store in Bangor, Maine.
Pursuing the felony charge, a prosecutor wrote, was not “in the interest of justice.” The charge, of reentering the U.S. after removal, was formally dropped Monday.
Defense attorney Ronald Bourget said the federal prosecutor did the right thing but noted that his client faces further proceedings in immigration court in Boston.
“In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that racial profiling is something that’s occurring,” Bourget said Tuesday, describing the Border Patrol’s conduct as “atrocious.” He added: “It’s not illegal to speak Spanish in a Goodwill store in Maine.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said federal guidelines prohibit profiling on the basis or religion or race. But the spokesman, Michael McCarthy, said Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Carmelo-Bartolo case.
The U.S. attorney’s office also declined further comment.
Carmelo-Bartolo, 31, remained jailed Tuesday at the Somerset County jail. He admitted during questioning by Border Patrol agents Sept. 19 that he was in the country illegally, according to court documents. Despite the dismissal of criminal charges, he still faces a civil proceeding that will be handled by an immigration judge in Boston, Bourget said.
The U.S. Supreme Court bans profiling based solely on race, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine accused the Border Patrol of crossing the line.
“Racial profiling is wrong. Law enforcement cannot target people on the basis of their race or national origin. Dismissal of the case is, indeed, ‘in the interests of justice,'” said Emma Bond, a staff attorney for the civil rights organization.
The Maine case comes as the Border Patrol has increased highway checkpoints, bus station checks and other activities farther from the Canadian border.
The Border Patrol can conduct operations like those within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the borders, even though agents have authority across all 50 states, according to law. Those parameters allow for such operations across the entire state of Maine.