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Suit: To'hajiilee basketball team unlawfully searched

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (AP) 7-07

The constitutional rights of high school basketball players from the Navajo community of To'hajiilee were violated when state police officers searched their belongings, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

The lawsuit was filed July 18 in federal court here on behalf of players Herschel Wilson, Jordan Etcitty, Randall Pablo and Isaac Francisco and the To'hajiilee school board. It names officers Donald O'Connor, David Romero and Alan L. Apodaca as defendants.

The ALCU said To'hajiilee and three other teams were sharing locker rooms during a high school basketball tournament in Des Moines, N.M., in March 2006. A coach from one of the teams, Temple Baptist High School, reported that items had been stolen from the team but he didn't know who was responsible.

According to the lawsuit, the officers insisted on searching the belongings of the To'hajiilee team despite the coach telling them it wouldn't be necessary.

 

After ordering the To'hajiilee players to line up on the court in front of the crowd, the officers ordered them to the locker room and proceeded to search their belongings. They also searched the team's bus.

``Defendants did not have probable cause to believe that any of the team members ... had stolen the items or that they were in possession of any stolen items,'' the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also states that the To'hajiilee team was the only team at the tournament to be searched and the only team to be escorted off the court by the officers.

``Fortunately, our young clients know that the police cannot willy-nilly accuse them of a crime and then detain and search them, and they also know that something is very wrong when the police arbitrarily turn their power against Native Americans and no one else,'' said Jane Gagne, co-legal director of the ALCU of New Mexico.

According to the suit, O'Connor did not mention in his incident report that the To'hajiilee team was detained in the locker room or that their belongings and bus were searched.

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, Peter Olson, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

The lawsuit claims the officers' actions were ``malicious and in utter disregard for plaintiffs' legal rights.'' It seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorneys' fees.

To'hajiilee coach Frank Larrabee said he's unsure why the Indian athletes were singled out. He noted that in the time it took the officers to conduct the search, the real culprits could have cleared out.

``We as coaches are required to do more than teach the sport,'' he said. ``We're required to talk about the value of education, teamwork, sportsmanship and to work with athletes on human values. It's clear the To'hajiilee team left that tournament with a blow to their self-esteem.''

 

 

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