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TUCSON –U.S. Border Patrol agents at southern Arizona checkpoints are routinely violating the constitutional rights of local residents, calling into question the legitimacy of these checkpoints and prompting the ACLU of Arizona to demand a thorough review of the policies and practices governing checkpoint operations.

“Border Patrol checkpoints today bear little resemblance to those authorized by the Supreme Court. Many Border Patrol officials do not understand—or simply ignore—the legal limits of their authority at checkpoints,” ACLU of Arizona Staff Attorney James Lyall said in an administrative complaint sent today to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Copies of the letter were also sent to Arizona congressional representatives, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

This complaint details the experiences of 15 U.S. citizens, ages 6 to 69, whose constitutional rights were violated at six different Arizona checkpoints. These citizens’ experiences demonstrate clear patterns of abuse at checkpoints including prolonged, unjustified detentions and unlawful searches based on service dogs “alerting” to nonexistent contraband. In many stops, it appears immigration enforcement is only a pretext for general criminal investigations, which the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional.

“Residents often experience extended interrogation and detention not related to establishing citizenship, unwarranted searches, racial profiling, verbal harassment, and physical assault, among other abuses,” the letter said. Many of the complainants are southern Arizona residents who must routinely pass through a checkpoint to go to work, take children to school or run basic errands.

Cases of Border Patrol agent misconduct at checkpoints detailed in the complaint include:

  • A Border Patrol agent pointing a gun at a driver, pulling him from his car and detaining him in handcuffs for 45 minutes after the driver declined to answer questions unrelated to citizenship;
  • Border Patrol agents detaining a driver and passenger in wire cages for 45 minutes—and searching their car over their objections—after a service dog alerted to an adjacent vehicle;
  • Border Patrol agents threatening and assaulting a woman for lawfully attempting to record a search of her vehicle following a false canine alert, upsetting her twin six-year-old children;
  • A Border Patrol agent searching a car without consent or probable cause, threatening the driver for objecting to the search, then lying to the driver about his identity;
  • Agents detaining three humanitarian aid workers solely for possessing backpacks and giving the aid workers an official Border Patrol card that misrepresents the legal basis for agents’ authority at checkpoints; and
  • Border Patrol agents detaining a local resident for over an hour because her car smelled like a skunk and questioning her about her legitimate prescription medication.

All 15 individuals described in the complaint were released after prolonged detentions. None were charged with an immigration violation or crime.

“Residents of southern Arizona are increasingly outraged by Border Patrol checkpoints, and for good reason,” Lyall said in the letter.

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Border Patrol checkpoints are constitutional only as long as stops are brief and involve, at most, a “limited inquiry into residence status” and a “visual inspection” of the exterior of the vehicle.

“While the Supreme Court has condoned immigration checkpoints because they were thought to impose a ‘minimal,’ non-offensive intrusion on the rights of motorists, the daily experiences of border residents profoundly undermine that premise, and by extension, the legitimacy of the checkpoints themselves,” the ACLU’s complaint states.

The complainants include several residents of Arivaca, a small town about 11 miles from the border. Residents there are currently petitioning for the removal of one of three checkpoints that surround the town, citing ongoing rights violations and harassment as well as harm to property values, tourism and quality of life. Residents describe being told by agents at the checkpoint, “You have no rights here.”

The ACLU demands that Border Patrol abuses at checkpoints in southern Arizona be investigated and the results of those investigations be made publicly available. It has been five years since the federal government last conducted a review of Border Patrol checkpoints and their impact on border communities.

The ACLU is still waiting for responses to two similar complaints: one filed on April 26, 2012, on behalf of eleven individuals abused by CBP officials at border crossings and another filed on October 9, 2013, on behalf of five Arizona residents subjected to unlawful “roving patrol” stops by Border Patrol. The ACLU believes the lack of response to widespread civil rights abuses by the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency is symptomatic of broader oversight failures within CBP and DHS.

Click here for a copy of the ACLU’s letter.

Click here to learn about your rights when you encounter Border Patrol (available in English and Spanish).