Border Patrol agents at southern Arizona checkpoints routinely violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens with illegal searches and other actions despite the agency's mandate that stops 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.
"Running a canine around a vehicle or even detaining people so you can run that canine is not viewed as overly prolonged as long as the agent can articulate their suspicions," Moran said.
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.
"Our officers and agents are trained to recognize people and situations that present a potential threat or violation of law without regard to race," Friel said.
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. The ACLU said agents have become abusive and even threatening in such circumstances.
While some agents make mistakes, a driver's behavior can lead to a more prolonged stop, Moran said.
"Their argumentative nature might just add to whatever suspicion the agent may have already had," he said.
The ACLU filed a similar complaint seeking a probe in October, claiming agents were subjecting U.S. citizens to illegal searches, detentions and excessive force in many cases miles from Arizona's border with Mexico. That complaint came just two weeks after the federal government settled an ACLU lawsuit over similar allegations in Washington state.
While acknowledging no wrongdoing in that case, the Border Patrol agreed to retrain agents and share with advocacy groups records of every traffic stop its agents make in Washington's Olympic Peninsula along the northern border with Canada for 18 months, among other things.