Interestingly (because it would make sense to rationalize the huge number of minor drug arrests as a means of keeping impaired motorists off the highway), none of the marijuana users cited at the Yuma Sector checkpoints was busted for driving under the influence.

The Border Patrol's heightened checkpoint activity played a big role in boosting the number of misdemeanor cases handled by the Yuma County Attorney's office from 980 in 2000 to more than 1,500 by 2005.

Then it really got busy. Nelson says his office prosecuted more than 2,500 misdemeanors last year. And that's despite the fact that county attorneys routinely dismiss as many as 20 percent of the marijuana cases as too legally tenuous to bother with.

Andy Hartmark
Andy Hartmark

Not surprisingly, Nelson says it was his office that recommended the partnership between the Border Patrol and the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, which led to the current arrangement of having the federal agents write Arizona tickets.

Before Operation Citation, the Border Patrol agents would make a seizure, then forward the motorist's name to the county attorney's office. Nelson says prosecutors would be forced to send a registered letter to each defendant at the cost of $5 or $6 each. And sheriff's deputies routinely had to schlep out to the Border Patrol stations to pick up the contraband for evidence, then write a slew of citations.

Now, county officers are no longer faced with the dilemma of either doing all that work or ignoring the fine-producing cases.

As for the people busted at the checkpoints who talked to New Times, they are angry that an immigration-enforcement agency caught them in its lair. They believe it's only natural that they had no idea they would be detained, because they weren't carrying a secret cargo of illegal aliens.

"I don't mean to be a conspiracy theory person, but you have to wonder if we are heading for the same things the Germans went through," says Mary, the pot-smoking grandmother. "It's only a matter of time before we see [checkpoints] on I-17 and every other major highway."

"It definitely didn't feel American," a member of a small Texas rock band says about the I-8 East checkpoint, after receiving a citation in June. "Our civil liberties are kind of slowly corroding away."

Normally, a police officer is allowed to pull over a motorist only if a traffic violation (anything from erratic driving to a busted tail light) is observed. Then, the officer has probable cause to, say, shine a flashlight into the car to look for illicit drugs.

Though there was no such probable cause in the Yuma County pot cases, the Border Patrol is exempted from that requirement by the Supreme Court, as noted earlier in this story.

The busted motorists whom New Times interviewed were particularly chagrined that a dog wound up leading officers to the pot they had stashed in their luggage.

"We were stupefied by the whole thing," says a 39-year-old Colorado mother of two teenagers charged with possessing about four grams of marijuana. She'd been on a road trip with a friend from Texas to San Diego, and they'd stopped in Tucson to visit a mutual friend, who gave them the pot. A highway accident temporarily closed I-8 East, diverting traffic north from Yuma onto Highway 95 — right into the northbound checkpoint where a Border Patrol dog was waiting for them.

"We thought we were going to be thrown in prison or jail or something," she says. "It was one of the scariest things I've ever been through."

She later paid $1,600 for an attorney (to avoid having to fly back to Yuma for a court date) and a $400 fine.

In cases like that of the Colorado woman, leniency figured into the equation, according to Yuma County prosecutors.

Nelson, the chief deputy county attorney for criminal matters, says his office prosecutes minor marijuana cases as misdemeanors to provide "the lenience that we believe these crimes deserve."

Truth is, Yuma County's courts would be swamped if each small-time pot case were handled as the felony that state law declares it, says Lil Wayne's Yuma attorney, James Tilson. The county, like most others in the state these days, is under a major budget crunch.

So, there's a practical reason for dealing with people caught with small amounts of marijuana quickly and efficiently. Doing it otherwise, simply doesn't pencil out.

More arrestees would take felony cases to trial. Even with plea agreements, such cases take a lot more time, money, and effort to prosecute.

On both the financial and human level, "increasing the amount of work you have doesn't make sense if it's not a serious crime," Tilson says.

Unfortunately for those caught on the Arizona side of the state line, a misdemeanor still packs a punch. Besides a fine, it also requires defendants or their lawyers to appear in court, which can get expensive.

Mary, the Phoenix grandma, negotiated a deal in which her misdemeanor charge was dropped in lieu of a $1,200 drug-treatment class. She paid a lawyer $3,500 to help make the deal.

The Texas musician paid a lawyer $3,500 just to see a $738 fine dropped to $400.

Under the current system, an innocent person could easily end up with a ticket just because a pot user left a surprise in the car.

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