Border Patrol Systematically Violates Civil Rights, ACLU States

A U.S. soldier looks on as Border Patrol Agent Chad Wamsley and his canine, Ricky I, check a tractor-trailer truck for indications of drugs or concealed people.
A U.S. soldier looks on as Border Patrol Agent Chad Wamsley and his canine, Ricky I, check a tractor-trailer truck for indications of drugs or concealed people.
Jim Greenhill/Creative Commons

A U.S. Border Patrol agent stopped a motorist on Highway 95, 75 miles from Mexico. When the man refused to consent to a search, the officer kicked a dent in the man's car while four of his colleagues surrounded the driver with weapons drawn, forced him to the ground, and handcuffed him. The agents held the driver for four hours, then released him, giving no reason.

At a checkpoint on Highway 78, a Border Patrol agent detained a man for reportedly failing to look him in the eyes. The handcuffs were so tight that the man's wrists turned red. Upon release, he discovered a service canine had damaged the interior of his car.

Border Patrol agents, without explanation, took apart a woman's car engine, leaving her stranded on the highway near the Arizona-California line with several parts disconnected.

These are just a few of the complaints unearthed in a new American Civil Liberties Union report on U.S. Customs and Border Protection's interior-enforcement operations in Arizona.

The report, based on more than 6,000 pages of government records obtained through litigation, reveals a startling pattern of violent harassment, racial profiling, and unlawful search and seizure. It also suggests that civil rights abuses – particularly of citizens' Fourth Amendment protection from unwarranted inspection – occur far more often than indicated in official government reports.

“This is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, and [it] has the least amount of oversight,” said Derek Bambauer, a law professor at the University of Arizona who co-authored the report. “It's just a breeding ground for abuse.”

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Daniel Hetlage declined to comment on the report, citing legal restraints.

The Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which monitors Customs and Border Protection, noted three instances when citizens across the country were stopped and searched without probable cause between fiscal years 2012 and 2013. The ACLU, however, discovered 81 cases during the same time period – in the Tuscon and Yuma sectors alone.

Part of the issue, Bambauer said, is that the Border Patrol appears to be “evading oversight” by deliberately impeding data collection.

The Border Patrol only tracks stops, for example, if officers make an arrest, he said. The skewed data makes agents look as if they have a high rate of success in spotting and bringing in suspicious people. It also makes it impossible to know how often innocent travelers are subjected to unlawful stops.

The agency's disregard for legally mandated transparency is further illustrated by the ACLU's attempts to collect information for this report. Bambauer requested the files in January of 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act, which makes government data available to the public, but the agency refused to comply until he filed a lawsuit in April. Even then, several months passed before Customs and Border Protection released heavily redacted files.

In the records the ACLU did obtain, Bambauer and his colleagues discovered 142 civil rights complaints, 44 allegations of false canine alerts that resulted in prolonged detention, and 29 claims of property damage or confiscation.

One driver reported that an agent seized his prescription medication. Another complained that an officer threatened to kill his dog for “safety reasons.” In another case, a citizen said an agent followed him into a parking lot then, with revolver drawn, ordered him to get on his knees and handcuffed him. When people came out of a nearby store to see what was happening, the agent allegedly yelled, “Stay away or I’ll shoot you!” The man was released 10 minutes later without explanation.

The vast majority of those arrested are U.S. citizens, with an over-representation of poor residents and people of color, according to the report. In 2013, agents at Yuma Sector checkpoints arrested citizens eight times more often than non-citizens. At the same time, nine of Tucson Sector’s 23 checkpoints arrested zero “deportable subjects.”

“This is not an efficient system, to say the least,” Bambauer said.

When people complain about abuse, little to nothing is done, Bambaur said. Although nearly 200 people raised red flags about maltreatment and corruption during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, only one officer was reprimanded. The victim in that case was reportedly a government employee and the son of a Border Patrol agent.

The ACLU has asked Customs and Border Patrol to collect data about all stops and searches, “prioritize” civil-rights complaints, and conduct prompt investigations.

“Agents cannot be allowed to carry on like this without repercussions,” Bambauer said.

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