NAPLES — When the Collier County Sheriff's Office sets up a traffic safety checkpoint in Immokalee, Ernestina Ojeda spreads a message to locals by phone and text:
The birds are in the trees.
"We all know what it means," Ojeda said.
It's a warning to steer clear of the checkpoints, where vehicles driving down a local road are pulled over and drivers are asked to produce up-to-date licenses, registration and insurance documents. In recent years, Immokalee and other targeted areas of Collier County have been subject to nearly all of the Sheriff's Office checkpoints, leading some to ask whether Hispanics are singled out by the stops, which don't require probable cause.
Of the 18 checkpoints run since the start of 2010, when the Sheriff's Office began publicizing the checkpoints, nine have been in Immokalee, four in Golden Gate and two in Golden Gate Estates — areas with some of Collier County's largest concentrations of Hispanics. Two checkpoints have been in North Naples, with one in East Naples.
"Folks that I've spoken to, when they do mention the checkpoints in Immokalee and the lack of checkpoints in other areas of Collier County, they do feel unfairly targeted in a way," said Grey Torrico, who has a foundation grant to work in Southwest Florida on issues involving Hispanics and law enforcement. "Many of these folks I talk to are undocumented, so it kind of adds to the anxiety."
Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said he understands concerns about the checkpoints, but said they are about safety and keeping law-breaking drivers off the county's roads. Rambosk added that checkpoints are run in areas where officials see a greater need for traffic enforcement based on crash and crime data.
"I do want to reinforce with people that we're not doing it from an immigration perspective," Rambosk said. "We are doing it from a safety perspective."
The checkpoints typically follow a pattern. Drivers are directed into a lot, where deputies check for a valid driver license, registration and proof of insurance. At the same time, a deputy scans the vehicle for maintenance issues. Sometimes, a K-9 unit sniffs around. The checkpoints are run on different days of the week and all times of the day.
Most drivers move through the line in a couple of minutes. But since January 2010, 90 people have been arrested and 455 citations have been issued. Nearly all of those arrested either don't have a valid license or don't have one at all.
"I do want to reinforce with people that we're not doing it from an immigration perspective," Collier Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said. "We are doing it from a safety perspective."
The Sheriff's Office doesn't have a policy about when or where to run checkpoints, but because they typically require several deputies, the checkpoints typically are run in areas with higher crime and crash rates. The lieutenants at each of the office's six patrol districts have latitude to set up and run checkpoints.
"It's an extensive amount of planning," said Lt. Rich Hampton, who oversees the Golden Gate patrol district. "I think it's important to understand we don't target areas based on the ethnicity of that area. We do target areas based on the crime and traffic trends."
The checkpoints are different than typical traffic stops because they don't require probable cause, which are facts that lead law enforcement to reasonably believe a crime or infraction was committed. Because probable cause isn't needed, the checkpoints have drawn the ire of some residents, who see the checkpoints as an excuse to verify the legal status of Hispanics.
Since January 2010, 16 of those arrested at checkpoints have been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through its 287g program partnership with the Sheriff's Office.
"It kind of begs the question that if the purpose is for a safety check, and the police department is trying to do a public safety initiative, why isn't it happening in other areas?" Torrico asked.
Sheriff's officials note that of those 16 detained, six had previous ICE warrants and the other 10 all had criminal histories, averaging about four charges each.
"People may feel like it's not about safety, but it's only about safety," Rambosk said. "We have a model program that we think other agencies should use, and we think it's that way because we specifically do not go and check papers."
To Ojeda, who spreads the "birds in the trees" message and works with domestic violence victims in Immokalee, the checkpoints make locals less likely to call for help when distressed.
To Barbara Mainster, the longtime executive director of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Immokalee, the checkpoints combine with the 287g program to breed distrust between residents and deputies.
"My biggest concern is that it creates so much fear in the police," Mainster said. "It has a huge effect here."
But Manny Gonzalez, chairman of the Collier County Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board, rebuffed the idea that the checkpoints create a chilling effect on resident-deputy relations, saying "those people would never call the Sheriff's Office in the first place."
"I think they save lives," Gonzalez, a former federal agent, said of the sheriff's checkpoints. "Perhaps these people should be looking at the other side. They should be following the law."
Nationally, the checkpoints also draw the ire of civil liberties advocates, who argue the non-probable cause stops are an example of an encroaching police state. Federal courts, however, have routinely upheld the legality of such checkpoints, and both the Lee County Sheriff's Office and Fort Myers Police Department have had similar checkpoint operations. Neither Naples nor Marco Island police have conducted the checkpoints.
"It hasn't been raised as an issue. However, our position would be that if the data suggested there's a disproportionate impact on discreet minorities, then we would consider that there is something amiss," Douglas Wilson, president of the Collier County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
Douglas Wilson, president of the Collier County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the local checkpoints haven't been scrutinized, though the locations could warrant review.
"It hasn't been raised as an issue. However, our position would be that if the data suggested there's a disproportionate impact on discreet minorities, then we would consider that there is something amiss," Wilson said.
While visiting a checkpoint last month off 40th Terrace Southwest in Golden Gate, Collier County Commissioner Tom Henning advocated for the stops.
"These guys are very proactive about patrolling the neighborhood, and what they're doing tonight, I'm really glad they're out here," Henning said. "I'm sure the lieutenant is doing it in this area for a certain reason, and that's because there have been crimes and victims. So that's where you want to be."
Rambosk said he wants to run more checkpoints and spread them throughout the county, but staffing is limited. Last month's checkpoint in Golden Gate, for example, was run on a Friday night because more deputies were available that night than any other.
For now, district lieutenants will continue to decide whether checkpoints are an efficient use of resources.
"The bottom line is: Does the lieutenant believe it's necessary in their area? Do they have the expectation that there are a lot of unlicensed drivers, uninsured drivers and unsafe vehicles?" Rambosk said.
"If there are, we can't let them go. I don't want them driving on the road with my family (on the road), and I know everybody, no matter where they live, they don't want them on the road with their family either."