Border Patrol hit with abuse complaints

By Bob Ortega/ The Arizona Republic

Southern Arizona residents say Border Patrol agents are using excessive force, engaging in illegal searches and seizures, and stopping and detaining people without explanation while roving on patrols up to 60 miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU says the scores of complaints it has received in Arizona are similar to ones raised in a lawsuit recently settled in Washington state.

ACLU attorney James Duff Lyall, in Tucson, said his group is delivering an administrative complaint Thursday morning to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, to the DHS’ Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and to the Department of Justice.

Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice settled an ACLU lawsuit over roving Border Patrol practices in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Customs and Border Protection didn’t admit any wrongdoing, but under the settlement, it agreed to train agents at the Port Angeles, Wash., station on how to abide by Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures.

The agency also agreed to provide the ACLU with traffic-stop information in that area for the next 18 months.

“Meanwhile, we’re receiving increasing complaints about the same sorts of unlawful practices here in Arizona,” Lyall said.

The DHS, CBP and Justice Department officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment because of the government shutdown.

But Chris Bauder, executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, rejected the notion that agents are acting unlawfully.

“Everything agents do is based on case law,” he said. “Agents get training at the academy, again at the duty location, and they get updates whenever the case law changes. It’s the same with the standard for reasonable suspicion.

“The hoopla from groups like the ACLU that this is something outside of our authority isn’t based on any change in case law; it’s due to political pressures or different ideas about how the border ought to be secured.”

But the complaints are part of a longer-standing issue. Over the past 20 years, the Border Patrol, which is part of the CBP, has grown more than five times in size to more than 21,000 agents. Under the U.S. Senate’s most recent version of the immigration-reform bill, the Border Patrol would double in size again over the next decade.

As part of an agency strategy to catch illegal border crossers and drug smugglers, Border Patrol agents mount checkpoints and engage in roving patrols as far as 100 miles from both the northern and southern borders.

Agents also often respond in tandem with local law-enforcement officers on routine police calls. But civil-rights groups such as the ACLU argue that although the traffic stops and other activities ostensibly are focused on immigration status, Border Patrol agents often stop people and question them far more broadly without reasonable suspicion of any wrongdoing.

Among the incidents detailed in the Arizona complaint:

On May 21, Border Patrol agents pulled over Clarisa Christiansen as she was driving to her home in Three Points, west of Tucson, with her 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son in the car.

According to Christiansen, after she confirmed that she was a U.S. citizen, the agent told her to get out of the car so he could search it. She said she didn’t consent to a search and asked why she’d been stopped.

She said the agent refused to say why he’d stopped her. Two other agents approached the car. One pulled out a retractable knife, threatened to cut her out of her seat belt if she didn’t get out of the car and took the keys from her ignition.

Christiansen said she got out of the car and waited while the agents ran a background check. The agents handed back her license and left. Then, she noticed that one of her tires had been punctured, with a long cut along the sidewall, which she attributes to the agents.

On April 15, about 50 miles north of the border, on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, Ernestine Josemaria passed a Border Patrol vehicle on Route 15 while driving toward Santa Rosa. She said the Border Patrol vehicle tailgated her into town and then pulled her over.

The agents accused her of being a smuggler, pulled her out of her truck, twisting her arms, and handcuffed her. They searched her truck over her objections, damaging it. Josemaria, a U.S. citizen, said the agents never asked about her citizenship or legal status.

Josemaria said she was forced to wait for an hour for a drug-sniffing CBP dog, which found nothing. More than an hour and a half after she was pulled over, she was allowed to go.

On March 22, at the Fort Bowie National Historic Site in southeastern Arizona, Bryan Barrow returned from a hike to find a park ranger peering into his vehicle. When Barrow, a U.S. citizen, couldn’t immediately find his registration and insurance card, the ranger held him and called for a Border Patrol agent and canine. The agent and dog searched the vehicle without Barrow’s consent, damaging it.

Barrow was detained for four hours without food, water or bathroom access. The Border Patrol denied a subsequent claim by Barrow’s insurance company, saying that federal law “bars recovery for property damaged by CBP employees while the property is under detention in CBP custody.”

In the spring of 2011, Suzanne Aldridge was pulled over while driving back to Bisbee by a man in plainclothes who didn’t identify himself. He questioned her aggressively, and asked to search the car. She said “no” and then drove about 1,500 yards to a more public parking lot.

There, Border Patrol agents dragged her out of her car, handcuffed her and pushed her to the ground, she said. Her car was searched without her consent. She was let go without any explanation.

Efforts by Christiansen, Barrow and Aldridge to file complaints went nowhere, according to Lyall. The complaint asks the DHS to investigate the specific allegations and to review roving patrol practices to make sure agents comply with the Constitution, federal law and agency guidelines.

“Many people don’t understand what their rights are with regard to their interactions with the Border Patrol,” Lyall said. “And it’s clear a lot of Border Patrol agents don’t understand the limits of their authority.”

Bauder, of the National Border Patrol Council, disagreed. “The standard is clear,” he said. “And the idea we don’t have the authority to do our job is nonsense. We’ve always had the authority.”

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