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Analysis: Customs searches unreasonable?

The American Civil Liberties Union charged Wednesday that searches by customs agents within 100 miles of the U.S. border threaten the rights of millions of Americans.
by Erica L. Green
Washington (UPI) Oct 23, 2008
Vince Peppard was cruising up the highway toward San Diego, wife in the seat next to him and a bunch of tile in tow.

The 53-year-old retired social worker was driving north from Tecate, Mexico, on his way to fix up an old house.

"I breezed right through the checkpoint," Peppard recalled. "Then a half-hour later, when I got into the U.S., they were opening my trunk and searching my car. I didn't feel like I was in the United States. I felt like I was in some police state."

Peppard was stopped about 20 miles north of the Mexican border by customs officials who demanded to search his car, he said. When he refused, Peppard said, a customs official brought in search dogs, hassled his wife -- who is from Syria -- for her citizenship papers and detained him for more than 30 minutes.

He was ultimately let go. But he can't let go of the fact that he was stopped inside the United States.

"I actually feel nervous that I'm going to be pulled over," Peppard said via a video hookup at a news conference Wednesday. "Now I have to have my passport when I go to the Home Depot or something."

It was stories like Peppard's that prompted a civil rights group to challenge the constitutionality of practices carried out by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The American Civil Liberties Union charged Wednesday that searches by customs agents within 100 miles of the U.S. border threaten the rights of millions of Americans.

The civil rights group released a map showing that nearly two-thirds of Americans -- 194.7 million people -- live within a 100-mile-radius of the U.S. borders and could be subject to an infringement of their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

"This is an area where the government is attempting to turn into a Constitution-free zone," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "The federal government has been allowed to turn areas of this nation into places where anyone can be stopped and searched for any reason -- or no reason at all.

"It is a classic case example of law enforcement powers expanding far beyond the proper boundaries -- in this case literally."

The group said it will push for legislation in the next administration to curtail customs officials' search authority.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, was authorized by Congress nearly 50 years ago to operate within a "reasonable distance" inside the border, which it designates as a 100-mile radius. The agency operates 33 checkpoints, and the ACLU said complaints about the checkpoints have risen since Sept. 11, 2001.

But border patrol officials say the checkpoints are anything but unconstitutional.

"The 100-mile zone absolutely is not a Constitution-free zone," said Jason Ciliberti, a supervisory border patrol agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "Those 100 miles are what essentially is said to be a reasonable distance from the boundary from the United States, and the Supreme Court has come down firmly on our side and said that what we're doing is not unreasonable."

Ciliberti said that the department is sensitive to citizen complaints about checkpoints and has tried to smooth the process.

"The vast number of those encounters is very brief," Ciliberti said. "If (necessary), agents do take some time to conduct investigations. But, of course, they conduct those investigations with due diligence and as minimally invasive as possible."

"In order to arrest that person, we still need probable cause as anywhere in the United States," he added.

But, he noted, the agency will continue its searches as part of its efforts to stop drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

"We do have a job to do, and we don't have the opportunity to be wrong -- even once," Ciliberti said. "So, we understand if people are offended by our tactics. We take the Constitution very seriously, we take it to heart."

(Medill News Service)

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