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ACLU sues law enforcement, school officials over claims of racial profiling

SALT LAKE CITY — The ACLU of Utah is suing law enforcement and education officials over a 2010 incident in which minority students were allegedly detained, interrogated and falsely accused of gang activity.

According to the ACLU's complaint, between 14 and 40 West High School students of Latino, African-American or Pacific Islander descent were searched, questioned and forced to be photographed holding signs identifying themselves as gang members as part of a gang sweep by law enforcement officials in December 2010. The lawsuit also claims the students' information was entered into a gang database, despite the fact they never had committed a crime.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in 3rd District Court against the Salt Lake City, West Valley City and West Jordan police departments, as well as Salt Lake County, the Unified Police Department's Metro Gang Unit and Salt Lake City School District officials.

"The main problem that we have is that the police carried out the raid in a way that we felt constituted racial profiling," said John Mejia, ACLU of Utah legal director.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Kaleb Winston, a 16-year-old who was a freshman at West High School at the time of the raid. Winston said he was photographed with a sign that said "gang tagger," suffered stress and humiliation, and temporarily left school as a result of the incident.

"I am bringing this case because I want to help make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to any other student," Winston said.

In the complaint, the ACLU claims that the police and education officials' actions violated the students' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, as well as other state laws. The lawsuit is one of several currently being pursued by the ACLU nationwide that address the issue of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies and schools, Mejia said.

"That hammer can be disproportionately dropped on certain kinds of students," he said.

Salt Lake City School District and Salt Lake City police officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it is against policy to comment on open litigation.