By Gil Potts
The American Civil Liberties Union has recently filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection over an increasing number of complaints regarding rights violations allegedly occurring at various Border Patrol Checkpoints.
The ACLU is one of several organizations and individuals supposedly suing the Border Patrol over alleged checkpoint rights infringements.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it is “The unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nationâ€™s borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.”
Late last month, Jennifer Weaver was shocked when a border patrol agent at the checkpoint on U.S. 67 south of Marfa, told her his dog had “alerted” on her pickup truck. She was ordered to pull over to the inspection area. She answered the agentâ€™s questions, but when she replied that, “yes,” she had two pistols in her glove compartment and a concealed handgun license in her purse, “the stop turned ugly.”
Agents ordered her out of her truck and forced her to the ground. They repeatedly searched her vehicle and performed weapons checks on the two legally owned pistols in her glove box. About an hour later, she was told she was free to leave.
“I knew there was nothing in my truck of interest to anyone,” said Weaver, a disabled schoolteacher.
Weaver, who uses a walker because of severe injuries from a car accident, said the second time she was stopped by the Border Patrol, she tried to explain to the agents that she couldnâ€™t stand or walk without her walker, which was in the bed of her truck.
After being wrestled out of the vehicle, searched and held again, she said the agents told her their dog had “alerted” to a bottle of prescription painkillers.
Weaver said she feels targeted for carrying a gun and for filing a complaint. “Iâ€™ve never been arrested in my life,” she said. “I filed a complaint, but they donâ€™t promise any remedy. I feel they just treat everybody like a criminal.
Bill Brooks, spokesman for the Border Patrolâ€™s Big Bend, Texas Sector, responded, “Weâ€™re satisfied that our agents operated properly. They were courteous to her; they provided her with the information she needed to file a complaint. There wasnâ€™t anything done by our agents that was out of line.”
The Border Patrol operates checkpoints on most every major road or highway in the U.S. leading away from the border, in some cases up to 100 miles from the southern and northern U.S. borders.
Presumably, these checkpoints are meant primarily to check the immigration status of those who pass through them. Critics however, including the ACLU, charge that the checkpoints have become an intrusive catch-all for general law enforcement, and that they subject travelers who pass through them to harassment and unconstitutional search and seizure.
Surprisingly, Customs and Border Protection leaders have themselves raised questions about the checkpoints.
In a recent interview with the Arizona Republic, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, defended the checkpoints as valuable, though he said he, too, has had questions about them.
“When I took this job in March of last year,” he said, “I did not know much about checkpoints. And frankly, Iâ€™ll tell you, I was a little curious as to, OK, how far away from the border are they? And why are they there? And are we really getting much benefit from them? And I heard complaints. I have looked at this, and I am continuing to look at this much more in depth.”
But Kerlikowske also said he doesnâ€™t see any need to change how the checkpoints operate at this time.
“There are a number of cases that have been filed regarding the checkpoints, and I think it depends on where these cases go and at what level within the court system theyâ€™ll actually be settled,” he said.
In a 1976 ruling, U.S. vs. Martinez-Fuentes, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Border Patrolâ€™s authority to operate checkpoints away from the border to verify residency status. But the court said questions at interior checkpoints must be brief, minimally intrusive and focused on immigration status. Any “further detention … must be based on consent or probable cause.”
“But things are very different, too, in many ways, than in 1976,” he added, reiterating that the checkpoints “are very helpful.”
The use of interior checkpoints expanded dramatically after 9/11.
The Border Patrol acknowledges operating 35 “permanent” checkpoints within the U.S., but also operates numerous “tactical,” or nominally temporary checkpoints at various locations.
Agency documents indicate a capacity to operate up to 200 checkpoints.
Referring to the 1976 Martinez-Fuentes ruling, “Probable cause can be a fuzzy standard,” said James Duff Lyall, an ACLU attorney in Tucson.
“I get checkpoint related complaints on a regular basis,” Lyall said. But, he added, “as long as they say their primary purpose is immigration related, itâ€™s hard to challenge even if it is mostly about drugs.”
Most often, checkpoint encounters go smoothly for travelers and agents alike, but they are serious business and can potentially lead to serious consequences. Agents have been shot at and occasionally have to dodge an errant driver. In the last three years, three people have been killed after running through Border Patrol interior checkpoints.
In the most recent incident, on Jan. 22, 2015, Border Patrol agents shot and killed a 25-year-old man the FBI identified as Tiano Meton, after he allegedly failed to stop at the checkpoint on I 10 near Sierra Blanca, Texas.
At the time of this writing, Metonâ€™s nationality and other details of the event had not been released do to the ongoing investigation.
In related border news, CBP officers at the Brownsville port of entry intercepted an alleged load of liquid methamphetamine. The officers discovered the alleged narcotics, valued at approximately $81,967, hidden within baggage belonging to a pedestrian.
“Our frontline CBP officersâ€™ attentiveness led to this seizure and arrest. These dangerous drugs will not reach this smugglerâ€™s intended destination thanks in large part to our officersâ€™ commitment to our mission,” said CBP Port Director Petra Horne, Brownsville Port of Entry.
The CBPâ€™s Brownsville Port of Entry is part of the South Texas Campaign, which leverages federal, state and local resources to combat transnational criminal organizations.