National News

Drug Arrests at Immigration Checkpoint Violated Constitution, New Hampshire Court Finds

Posted May 4, 2018 7:53 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2018 7:59 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A state court in New Hampshire has ruled that the arrests of several people last summer who were charged with drug possession at an immigration checkpoint set up by the U.S. Border Patrol were unconstitutional under state and federal law.

Border Patrol agents working with state officials conducted what the American Civil Liberties Union had described as illegal drug searches. Sixteen residents were arrested in August at an immigration checkpoint set up on a major interstate highway about 90 miles from the Canadian border, where federal agents said they were looking for people trying to enter the country illegally.

In an order dated May 1, Judge Thomas A. Rappa Jr. of the New Hampshire Circuit Court threw out the arrests. “While the stated purpose of the checkpoints in this matter was screening for immigration violations, the primary purpose of the action was detection and seizure of drugs," Rappa concluded in the 14-page ruling, a copy of which was released Friday.

The ACLU of New Hampshire had said the arrests violated New Hampshire’s Constitution, which requires law enforcement officials to have a reasonable suspicion of a crime before stopping and searching individuals and their vehicles.

In a statement, an official for Customs and Border Protection said the agency would review the judge’s decision with the state authorities and the U.S. attorney’s office.

“This decision to suppress evidence from an immigration checkpoint in Woodstock, New Hampshire, does not affect the U.S. Border Patrol’s federal authority to conduct immigration checkpoints,” the official said.

State officials argued that the arrests were lawful because the individuals were stopped and searched by the Border Patrol. New Hampshire officials maintain that the federal agents were within their jurisdiction since the checkpoints were fewer than 100 miles from the Canadian border.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under federal law, the Border Patrol does not need a warrant to search people who are suspected of immigration violations or drug smuggling within 100 miles of the border.

But a Border Patrol checkpoint is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment if its primary purpose is to detect drugs.

“This decision is a victory for civil liberties,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the state ACLU chapter and co-counsel on the case. He said the checkpoints “flagrantly violated” the state and federal constitutions.

The 16 people were arrested after being sent to secondary inspection at the checkpoints. There, Border Patrol agents used dogs to sniff out small amounts of drugs in their vehicles.

The individuals were handed over to police officers from the New Hampshire city of Woodstock. The ACLU accused the Police Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection of subverting the New Hampshire Constitution, which prohibits using dogs to search for drugs without a warrant or reasonable suspicion.

New Hampshire law enforcement officials should have been barred from conducting similar searches, the ACLU said.

Rappa agreed.