What powers do agents have at U.S. border checkpoints?
As part of its ongoing “Bordering on Insecurity” series, the Texas Tribune asked residents to help report on the Texas-Mexico border by sharing their questions and experiences. Roberto of Presidio, Texas, wants to know more about what powers border agents have when questioning people at checkpoints.
Roberto asks: What is the standard operating procedure at checkpoints?
Julián Aguilar of Texas Tribune answers: That’s a fair question that comes up often. Under federal law, checkpoints are legal. But officers do have limits in what they can ask you.
Checkpoints are allowed under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency’s website explains: “Immigration Officers, without a warrant, may ‘within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States … board and search for aliens in any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railcar, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle.’”
The site explains that a U.S. Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, found that “only minimal intrusion existed to motorists at reasonably located check points, even in the absence of reasonable or individualized suspicion.”
In order to perform a “legal search” without violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches, a Border Patrol agent must have probable cause to search a vehicle or person. And it appears rather easy for an agent to come up with a reason.
“Probable cause can be developed from agent observations, records checks, non-intrusive canine sniffs and other established means,” CBP states. “Motorists may consent to a search but are not required to do so.”
Critics of current policies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that despite protections put in place to limit unwarranted searches and harassment, abuses still occur. The group claims this happens due to a number of factors, including outdated policies and inadequate training for border agents.
“Border Patrol agents routinely ignore or misunderstand the limits of their legal authority in the course of individual stops, resulting in violations of the constitutional rights of innocent people,” the ACLU states on its website. “These problems are compounded by inadequate training for Border Patrol agents, a lack of oversight by CBP and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the consistent failure of CBP to hold agents accountable for abuse.”