BILLINGS - A Washington state couple is alleging they were racially profiled by a Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) trooper after they were pulled over for speeding and subsequently had their car seized and searched for drugs.
Luis Wright and Ana Guizar, who are both Latino, were driving through Montana on the morning of July 22 when they were pulled over on Interstate 90 in Laurel by MHP Trooper David Moon after he clocked them going 82 mph in a 65 mph zone.
Moon, who is white, first approached Wright on the passenger side where Wright told the trooper they were traveling to see family in Chicago. Moon then asked Guizar, the driver and owner of the white 2016 BMW 525, to come back to his patrol car with him, where he asked her a number of questions.
That is not standard procedure, according to MHP, but is left up to the discretion of each trooper.
In the patrol car, Moon told Guizar he was going to give her a speeding warning but then requested to ask her more questions.
"Are you ok with that?" he said.
"Uhh, I guess so," Guizar answered.
Moon then told Guizar he is on the MHP interdiction team, whose focus is to prevent drugs from crossing through Montana.
It is unclear what prompted that line of questioning.
"Did anybody put any heroin in the vehicle?" he asked.
"No," she replied.
"No meth in the vehicle?" he furthered.
"There's nothing in the car," she replied.
"No cocaine in the vehicle?"
"There's nothing in the car."
"No Fentanyl pills in the vehicle?"
"There's nothing in the car."
Moon then asks to search the vehicle.
"No," Guizar replied, shaking her head on the car's in-visor camera.
"She didn’t feel it was right," Wright said in an interview with MTN. "I asked him, 'Why are you giving us such a hard time? There’s no reason for you to keep going on about this, other than racially profiling us.'"
The MHP released a copy of Trooper Moon’s narrative of the incident to MTN News, where he laid out reasons for asking to search the vehicle.
“During the stop I had noticed how the driver could quickly answer questions when I would ask her simple questions," Moon wrote. "When I would ask about the trip or illegal items, she would change. This was different from the normal motoring public.”
Moon added that he noticed Wright pretending to be asleep in the passenger seat.
After Guizar exited Moon’s patrol car, the trooper did not allow the couple to get back into their vehicle. Instead, he brought his K9, Sammy, out to do an open-air search around the car. MHP says a trooper must have probable cause to run a dog during a stop.
Sammy immediately jumped onto the open passenger window with her front paws, then sat down in front of the passenger door. Moon then walked her back to his vehicle and called in a K9 alert.
“Sammy indicated to the presence of illegal drug odors coming from the front passenger open window," Moon wrote in his narrative.
Moon then informed Wright and Guizar he was seizing their car and would seek a search warrant. A different MHP trooper who had arrived on scene midway through the stop then drove Wright and Guizar to Bernie’s Diner in downtown Billings, where they were told to wait.
"He would not allow us to retrieve our cell phones. He would not allow us to retrieve our money. Nothing," Wright said. "They told me to call (them) later to retrieve the car, and I asked, 'How would you like me to call you? You took my cell phone.'"
After the couple had breakfast, they were eventually picked up again by an MHP trooper and taken to a hotel on Billings West End and paid for a room themselves. District Judge Ashley Harada signed off on a search warrant for the car at 2:17 p.m., and the car was returned to the couple around 6 p.m. with no items seized.
The couple was, however, carrying about $7,000 in cash in the vehicle, according to the MHP.
Wright says the delay caused them to miss an important event the following day.
"We’re not going to make our funeral tomorrow, because this officer abused his power," he said. "He's basically making us suffer because we did not allow him to search the car. The public needs to know what's going on, because it's unfair. It's racial profiling at its highest."
Sgt. Jay Nelson of the MHP released a statement about the incident to MTN News.
“Illegal drugs are coming into Montana at an alarming rate, and increasingly along the Seattle-Chicago transportation corridor," Nelson said. "Troopers on the Criminal Interdiction Team are trained to identify behaviors and fact patterns that could indicate drug trafficking. In this case…the trooper determined there was probable cause to request a search warrant for the vehicle.”
Wright and Guizar say they plan to seek legal action.