PHOENIX – Border Patrol agents at southern Arizona checkpoints routinely violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens with illegal searches and other actions although the stops are supposed to be limited to immigration enforcement, according to a complaint filed Wednesday.
The letter from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General seeks an investigation into 12 specific cases and a review of checkpoint policies to determine if agents are complying with constitutional guidelines.
“Border residents regularly experience extended interrogation and detention not related to establishing citizenship, invasive searches, verbal harassment and physical assault, among other abuses,” ACLU of Arizona attorney James Lyall wrote. “Border Patrol checkpoints often appear to be operated as drug interdiction checkpoints, which are unconstitutional, and not for the limited purpose of verifying residence status.”
Lyall said Border Patrol agents should not be conducting extended stops or searches of vehicles at the checkpoints “for non-immigration purposes, absent ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a crime has been committed.”
The National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents, balked at the allegations, noting agents are not limited to only immigration enforcement.
“The authority of a Border Patrol agent is pretty vast,” said Shawn Moran, the group’s vice president, adding that the law allows them to investigate crimes including trafficking of guns and drugs.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel said Border Patrol checkpoints along roadways are vital tools aimed at securing the nation’s borders and interrupting travel routes for smugglers of guns, drugs and people.
The cases cited by the ACLU occurred over the past 15 months at six Arizona checkpoints. One case says an agent pointed a gun at a man’s face during a checkpoint stop when he refused to answer whether he had any weapons in his vehicle.
In another case, the ACLU said three people were detained for 30 minutes after an agent thought backpacks in their vehicle looked suspicious, and the occupants refused to consent to a search of the car.
While some agents make mistakes, a driver’s “argumentative” behavior can lead to a more prolonged stop, Moran said.