Civil Liberties

U.S. Court Gives Thumbs-Up to Snoopy Checkpoints Near-ish the Border


A recent federal ruling in Arizona reinforces the growing use of border stops conducted far from the border, and intended for border security purposes in general, and immigration control in particular, to enforce pretty much any law of interest to the federal government. This, points out, despite a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that such roadblocks aren't supposed to turn into criminal fishing expeditions.

Experienced travelers know that one of the peculiar attractions of motoring through the desert Southwest is the time spent in contemplative meditation under the warm sun, along a stretch of dusty, beer-bottle-festooned Interstate, waiting to be briefly questioned and then (hopefully) waved through a roadblock by sweaty Border Patrol agents tens of miles from anyplace that might reasonably be represented on a map by a thick, dotted line.

Such restful interludes come courtesy of the "border search exception," which holds that there's an escape clause from the Fourth Amendment, maybe written in invisible ink on the back of the Constitution, allowing for warrantless searches of travelers within 100 miles of the border. Why 100 miles? That appears to be an executive-branch riff on Supreme Court decisions, such as United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, holding that "[a]utomotive travelers may be stopped at fixed checkpoints near the border without individualized suspicion, even if the stop is based largely on ethnicity." The exception holds, writes the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, in the recent case of US v. Ruiz-Perez (PDF), because "Immigration checkpoints such as the one at issue in this case serve a public interest in securing the border."

Public interest? Oh. Well, of course.

Summarizing the case, writes:

On January 19, 2011, Omar Ruiz-Perez, a commercial truck driver, was hauling produce from a warehouse in Rio Rico, Arizona to Los Angeles, California for the MRM Xpress trucking company. At around 8:30pm, he hit the roadblock on Interstate 19 located twenty-five miles from the actual border with Mexico.

Border Patrol Agent Christopher Thornton stopped him, and Ruiz-Perez explained that he was a US citizen and provided copies of his bill of lading, as requested. Thornton claimed the truck's US DOT number was "suspiciously high" and the truck's paint was not pristine. He asked if he could look in the back of the truck, and Ruiz-Perez said he did not care. Agents x-rayed the truck and found a hidden compartment containing drugs.


In upholding the stop and subsequent search and arrest over the defendant's objections, Judge Jennifer G. Zipps insists, "the gravity of the public concerns served by the I-19 Checkpoint are high, the checkpoint was reasonably related to these concerns, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty was minimal."

In 2000, in the case of City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Supreme Court had ruled against all-purpose vehicle checkpoints, saying, "[w]e cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime."

But Judge Zipps gives the roadblock in this case a pass because it was billed as a border checkpoint within that magic 100-mile zone around the perimeter of the country—a "Constitution-free zone," warns the ACLU, that includes nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population.

See's full story here.