An Islamic advocacy group has filed a complaint against the Henderson Police Department on behalf of seven Muslim men detained while praying in a gasoline station parking lot in December.
The Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, announced the complaint in a press release on Friday.
The complaint says seven Muslim residents of Southern California were traveling through the Las Vegas Valley on Dec. 20 when they stopped for gasoline and food at a Rebel station in Henderson.
About 5:10 p.m., the men conducted their evening prayer next to the van, which was "lawfully parked in the parking lot, and neither their person nor their vehicle was blocking any entrance or exit," the complaint said.
As they returned to their vehicle, two police officers stopped the men and asked whether they knew why they were being stopped.
The men told the officers they were friends on a road trip and had been conducting their evening prayer in the parking lot, the complaint said.
Officers told the men they had received a call about a "bunch of guys doing weird moves," a call that was identified in police code as a 425 or "suspicious situation," the complaint said.
CAIR spokeswoman Munira Syeda said Muslims have a religious obligation to pray five times per day, regardless of where they are.
"Police officers need to understand that praying is a First Amendment right. It’s not probable cause," Syeda said. "Someone’s appearance or a certain look or ethnicity is not a crime."
The men, who were of Arab and Southeast Asian descent and dressed in street clothes, were asked to get out of the vehicle and sit on the curb of the parking lot for about 35 to 40 minutes as the officers conducted background checks and asked questions about their places of birth, schooling and employment, according to the complaint.
During that time, a third officer arrived and their vehicle was searched.
The men were released without arrest or incident, the complaint said, and officers told them "they were not trained well enough to know how to appropriately respond to Muslim religious behavior."
Henderson police spokesman Todd Rasmussen confirmed the department had received the complaint from CAIR, which had been addressed to Chief Jutta Chambers, but he wouldn’t comment further.
"The incident is being investigated through internal affairs," he said.
The complaint requests a timely and thorough investigation from the Police Department, with appropriate disciplinary action and policy changes taken.
Undisclosed compensation for damages and emotional distress also was requested in the complaint.
ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein said Nevada law permits police to detain a person if they have reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed or has taken place, which is less stringent a standard than probable cause, he said.
He said he would like to see the police justification of "reasonable suspicion" in this instance.
"To go over there and ask them (the men) what they were doing, and to find out and perhaps run their names, shouldn’t take that long," he said.
He said racial profiling is never acceptable.
"Someone being a Muslim, or a particular race or ethnicity, and praying on the side of the road? That’s not enough to detain somebody," he said. "Stopping somebody because of that is flat out illegal."
Lichtenstein said the definition of suspicion is used loosely in police departments throughout Nevada.
Some officers believe they have leeway to detain whomever they want, he said.
"Many officers use good judgment, some use poor judgment, but there’s no way for departments to separate the two."
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@review journal.com or 702-383-0283.Watch YouTube video of the incident