That's what happened to "Joe," a 48-year-old Peoria man who drove his wife's car through the checkpoint on his way back from a job in Yuma. Joe's not a pot smoker and says he fully supports the Border Patrol's mission.

"My daughter, who's in her 20s, forgot to take her goodies out" of the car, Joe says. After a dog gave an alert, agents found two used pot pipes in the trunk.

Rather than place the blame on his daughter, he paid $1,600 in fines, and was embarrassed recently when the arrest showed up in a background check while he was trying to rent a house. He was allowed to move in, but lamented of his new rap sheet: "It just sucks. Period."

Andy Hartmark
Andy Hartmark

The worst part, Joe says, is that he could be fired if his boss ever found out about the conviction.

Ryan Childers, a criminal defense attorney who worked as a prosecutor for Imperial County, California, from 2004 to 2006, was surprised to hear how many checkpoint-related drug cases Yuma County handles.

"What a waste of resources!" the El Centro lawyer says.

In California, Childers explains, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana rates only a $100 fine and is considered a minor infraction rather than a misdemeanor. And forget the rhetoric heard in Arizona that violators would be prosecuted even "if it's a seed." This state's more liberal neighbor requires a "smokable amount" to prosecute the infraction, Childers says.

The law against marijuana paraphernalia in California is so lax that Border Patrol agents in the state who find a pipe or a bong in a checkpoint search can't do anything other than confiscate it, Childers says.

There's no checkpoint along the westbound lanes of I-8 in Arizona, but three months ago, the Border Patrol opened a checkpoint on westbound I-8 just east of El Centro. The agency's El Centro Sector also operates permanent checkpoints on California highways 86 and 111.

Minuscule amounts of marijuana are mostly seen as a waste of time for law enforcement, says Lieutenant George Moreno of the Imperial County Sheriff's Office.

A sheriff's deputy or a California Highway Patrol officer is obliged to drive out to the El Centro-area checkpoint if a case is to be made. Moreno says California law disallows detentions of more than 30 minutes for infractions. So if the amount of pot is just a few grams and no deputy is near the checkpoint, the sheriff's office doesn't send anybody out.

"The Border Patrol knows that we don't have the staffing levels, so they [usually] just let the person go and they destroy the evidence," he says.

And because California's medical-marijuana law is liberal, if such marijuana users show the correct paperwork to the Border Patrol after getting stopped, their pot is seized and they're sent on their way, Moreno says.

In the Yuma Sector, low-level busts of people with marijuana are staving off boredom for Border Patrol agents.

Spokesman Schappell talks almost wistfully of the days when the sector was hopping with illegal immigrants. Now, agents don't spend much time chasing down border crossers and hauling in big loads of drugs, he admits.

On a sunny February day, Schappell cruises a sandy road on the northern side of the imposing security fence that runs from San Luis to just past the distant Tinajas Altas Mountains on the horizon. Not a footprint can be seen for miles in the soft earth.

"Anybody who says a fence doesn't work, I say, 'Come to Yuma,'" Schappell says.

The number of Border Patrol agents nationally stands at more than 15,000 and is expected to grow to 18,000 by the end of the year. The push toward greater enforcement against illegal immigrants is gaining momentum, and agents from Texas to California insist that checkpoints are a crucial part of the system.

Checkpoints running north from Tucson and ports of entry in New Mexico and Texas caught the bulk of the nearly 2 million pounds of marijuana, seven tons of cocaine, and sizable loads of other drugs seized by the Border Patrol last year.

In the Yuma Sector, though, the agency's mission has changed with time. Now, it's the small-time drug offender feeling the most heat, and the illegal immigrants and smugglers — who are far more aware of the checkpoints than the average American citizen — are going elsewhere.

The Border Patrol attributes this to the addition of the 300 new Yuma Sector agents in three years and to the new fence along the non-mountainous parts of the sector's 125-mile southern border.

The drop in apprehensions has been the Border Patrol's biggest success story. In 2006, Yuma Sector agents caught 118,000 people trying to gain entry into the United States from Mexico. But last year, only 39,000 people were apprehended in the sector.

Rock-throwing by Mexicans south of the border has become more common — agents believe it's a sign of frustration with the new situation.

Still, most Yuma-area Border Patrol agents are now watching over a relatively quiet border.

Most of the action takes place at the checkpoints, where agents busy themselves busting the likes of pot-smoking grandmas and musicians.

Many of the busted marijuana users interviewed by New Times wondered whether Border Patrol agents had too much time on their hands, considering that agents expend so much effort to catch people carrying mostly minuscule amounts of pot. Others wondered whether Operation Citation was just a clever way to pour money into the Yuma County coffers.

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