New Jersey state, local and county police have abused a two-year-old directive that empowers them to question suspects in serious crimes about their immigration status, according to a study due out today.

The findings, contained in a report by the Seton Hall University School of Law, conclude that police exceed their authority by questioning individuals involved in even minor infractions.

State Attorney General Anne Milgram issued the directive to determine the immigration status of suspects in major crimes in August 2007 following the execution-style slaying of three students in a Newark schoolyard. Among those charged was an undocumented immigrant from Peru who had previously been arrested in the United States.

The Seton Hall report is based on testimony from 68 people, collected by the law school's Center for Social Justice, and a review of the first 10,000 cases referred to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials by New Jersey police.

"Either no offense or only a minor offense was charged" in many of the forwarded cases, according to the report. Milgram's guidelines allow local police to inquire about citizenship, nationality, and immigration status only when a person is arrested for a felony crime or drunken driving.

In 60 percent of the cases studied, the individuals said they were stopped for minor violations such as rolling through a stop sign or drinking in public.

Of the 10,000 referrals to ICE, only 1,417 people were charged with immigration violations, the report states. In a third of the cases, ICE later said that those referred to the agency "may have been U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents," according to the report. All but three of the 68 cases involved individuals of Hispanic origin.

"The data suggests a disturbing trend towards racial profiling by New Jersey police who are questioning people about their immigration status for no apparent basis other than their driving or riding or walking while Latino," said lawyer Bassina Farbenblum, coauthor of the study, titled "Crossing the Line."

David Wald, a spokesman for Milgram, said the attorney general would review the report and its recommendations.

"We welcome the center's input, but we do question some of the conclusions," Wald said. "We have no information that police are arresting individuals just to enforce federal immigration laws."

The report cites a September 2007 instance in which a photographer for a Brazilian newspaper discovered a dead body in Newark. During the crime-scene investigation, a deputy police chief reportedly asked him and other employees of the paper about their immigration status.

A subsequent investigation by the Attorney General's Office concluded that the pointed questioning violated Milgram's directive.

"That deputy police chief was reprimanded," Wald said, adding that Milgram was serious about monitoring compliance with the directive.

Nelson Carrasquillo, director of CATA, a farmworkers support organization in Glassboro, said his group's members, most of whom are Hispanic, often are stopped by police, especially when their cars have out-of-state plates.

"If the documentation they provide is an out-of-state license," he said, they frequently are detained and questioned about their immigration status.

The Seton Hall report recommends that the directive be repealed or amended to clarify that questioning the immigration status of a suspect in a serious crime may occur only after an arrest "and should never form the basis for an arrest."

The report also calls for more training of police about what constitutes "a reasonable belief" that a person is an undocumented immigrant, and detailed, publicly available records documenting all instances in which local police have contacted ICE.

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.