The Border Patrol: America’s Drug Cops
How the Border Patrol Can Detain 2/3rds of Americans without Cause
By Russ Belville
What do hardcore metal growler Chris Barnes of the band Six Feet Under, original gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg, and living country legend Willie Nelson all have in common, besides being professional musicians?
They’ve all been busted for weed on Interstate 10 at Sierra Blanca, Texas, and they’ve all had to sit in jail over it.
Sierra Blanca is in Hudspeth County, Texas, whose population would fit inside Radio City Music Hall. Before becoming famous for busting musicians in their tour buses, it had been known in the 1990’s as America’s Largest Sewage Dump. So how does Sierra Blanca, a town of about 500, become known as the place that nabbed rappers Paul Wall and Baby Bash, actor Armie Hammer, and hacker Geohot for pot?
By being home to one of the United States’ 32 permanent Border Patrol traffic checkpoints near the southern border with Mexico.
“Show me your papers, please.”
The Border Patrol, you might think, would be something you’d encounter when you were (wait for it…) crossing a border. Yet the Border Patrol has the legal authority to detain you, a US Citizen, for questioning at any of their 71 permanent and roving traffic checkpoints within 100 miles of the US border, just for driving up to the checkpoint.
As the General Accounting Office states: “Border Patrol agents at checkpoints have legal authority that agents do not have when patrolling areas away from the border. The United States Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents may stop a vehicle at fixed checkpoints for brief questioning of its occupants even if there is no reason to believe that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens. The Court further held that Border Patrol agents ‘have wide discretion’ to refer motorists selectively to a secondary inspection area for additional brief questioning. The constitutional threshold for searching a vehicle is the same, however, and must be supported by either consent or probable cause….”
The putative reason for stopping you is to make sure you’re a legal citizen, of course, but the real reason is to stop you long enough for the drug dog to smell your weed and give the cops probable cause to search you. The practice is so common that El Paso defense lawyers have specific “Sierra Blanca Checkpoint Marijuana Bust” pages on their websites.
The “Constitution-Free Zone” Applies to 2/3rds of US
OK, you’re thinking, that sucks, but I never wanted to go to West Texas anyway. Alas, this “Constitution-Free Zone” where federal cops don’t have to abide by the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply only to the Mexican border. That 100-mile zone applies to all US borders. That would include the Canadian border, of course, as well as the coastlines (our “borders” with water) of the Pacific, Atlantic, Great Lakes, and Gulf of Mexico.
The ACLU found that two-thirds of the US population lives within this 100-mile swath of sweeping federal power to detain American citizens. According to ACLU, nine of the top 10 largest metropolitan areas fall within this 100-mile zone. (The only exception is #9, Dallas-Fort Worth.) Some states are considered to lie completely within the zone: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawai’i, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
At any time in those places, Border Patrol could set up checkpoints to randomly and without cause detain American citizens for interrogation and search, as was the case with students and professors from the University of Maine last year. Border Patrol had set up the Orwellian-named “temporary permanent checkpoint” 75 miles from the Canadian border and quizzed students on their immigration status. Foreign-born students and scholars are now being advised to carry their original visas and other papers to avoid detention and arrest.
“It feels a lot like East Germany did.”
In Rochester, New York, where the nearest border is 65 miles away at Buffalo, another aspect of the Border Patrol’s power is abused: the power to conduct “walk-throughs and interrogations” of passengers on mass transit. Passengers of Amtrak trains, Greyhound buses, and the airlines at Rochester’s small airport have all been accosted by agents from the Rochester Border Patrol office, which has grown from seven to twenty-seven agents since 2008, despite lacking any foreign port of entry. “We’ve had hundreds of students questioned and stopped and inconvenienced, and perhaps a dozen students, scholars, or family members who’ve been detained or jailed,” says Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester, speaking to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “For international visitors who see people boarding trains, pulling people off, asking for documents, it feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980.”
The Customs and Border Protection states that their 2009 seizures of marijuana totaled over 4.3 million pounds, while their capture of undocumented immigrants has fallen to the lowest levels seen since the 1970s. Just over 327 thousand illegal immigrants were caught in 2011, a figure that’s down 53.5% since 2008. Part of the decline in border crossings is attributable to the takeover of the human trafficking market by the huge drug gangs which, of course, only became huge drug gangs because Border Patrol weed seizures helped keep their pot prices high.