Border Patrol agents can now legally detain two-thirds of Americans without cause.

By Russ Belville

What do hardcore metal growler Chris Barnes of the band Six Feet Under, original gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg and living country legend Willie Nelson all have in common (besides being professional musicians)? They’ve all been busted for weed on Interstate 10 in Sierra Blanca, TX – and they’ve all had to sit in jail because of it.


Sierra Blanca is located in the West Texas county of Hudspeth, whose entire population would fit inside Radio City Music Hall. Before gaining fame for routinely arresting musicians in their tour buses, the town was known back in the 1990s as “America’s Largest Sewage Dump.” So how did Sierra Blanca (population: approximately 550 unfortunate souls) become famous as the place that busted singer Fiona Apple, rappers Paul Wall and Baby Bash, and hacker Geohot (among others) for pot? By also being home to one of the United States’ 32 permanent Border Patrol traffic checkpoints near the southern border with Mexico.


The Border Patrol, you might think, is something you’d only encounter if you were – wait for it – crossing the border.


But you’d be mistaken: The Border Patrol has the legal authority to detain you, a US citizen, for questioning at any of its 71 permanent or roving traffic checkpoints within 100 miles of the US border, just for driving up to that checkpoint.


In fact, according to the Government Accountability Office, Border Patrol agents at such checkpoints “have legal authority that agents do not have when patrolling areas away from the border. The United States Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents may stop a vehicle at fixed checkpoints for brief questioning of its occupants even if there is no reason to believe that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens. The Court further held that Border Patrol agents ‘have wide discretion’ to refer motorists selectively to a secondary inspection area for additional brief questioning.”


The putative reason for stopping you, of course, is to make sure that you’re a legal citizen – but the real reason is to detain you long enough to allow a drug-sniffing dog to detect your weed and give the cops probable cause to search you. The practice is so common that El Paso defense lawyers have specific “Sierra Blanca Checkpoint Marijuana Bust” pages on their websites.


“Okay, that sucks,” you’re thinking, “but I never wanted to go to West Texas anyway.” Alas, this 100-mile “Constitution-free zone” – an area in which federal police agents don’t have to abide by the Fourth Amendment – actually applies to every inch of the US border. That would mean the Mexican and Canadian borders, of course, as well as all of our coastlines, which include the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.


In fact, the ACLU found that two-thirds of the US population lives somewhere within this 100-mile swath encompassing all of our border areas and coasts. According to the ACLU, nine of the country’s 10 largest metropolitan areas fall within this zone (Dallas-Fort Worth is the only exception), and a number of states are considered to lie completely within this zone: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.


At any time in this area, Border Patrol agents have the authority to set up checkpoints and detain American citizens – randomly and without cause – for interrogation and search. This was the case with students and professors from the University of Maine last year, when the Border Patrol set up an Orwellian-named “temporary permanent checkpoint” 75 miles from the Canadian border and quizzed them on their immigration status. As a result, foreign-born students and scholars are now being advised to carry their original visas and other papers to avoid detention and arrest.


In Rochester, NY, where the nearest border is 65 miles away in Buffalo, another aspect of the Border Patrol’s power is abused: the power to conduct “walkthroughs and interrogations” of passengers on mass transit. People traveling on Amtrak trains, Greyhound buses or using the city’s small airport have all been accosted by agents from the Rochester Border Patrol office, which has grown from seven to 27 officers since 2008, despite the fact that the city lacks any actual port of entry.


“We’ve had hundreds of students questioned and stopped and inconvenienced, and perhaps a dozen students, scholars or family members who’ve been detained or jailed,” says Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester, speaking to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “For international visitors who see [government agents] boarding trains, pulling people off, asking for documents, it feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980.”


And just to make it crystal clear what those agents are hoping to find: According to the US Customs and Border Protection service, its marijuana seizures in 2009 totaled over 4.3 million pounds, while its arrest of undocumented immigrants has fallen to the lowest levels since the 1970s. Just over 327,000 illegal immigrants were caught in 2011, a figure that’s down 53.5 percent from 2008. Ironically, part of the decline in border crossings is attributable to the takeover of the human-trafficking market by huge drug gangs – which, of course, only became huge in the first place because the Border Patrol’s weed seizures have kept their business so highly profitable.


“Radical” Russ Belville is the executive producer of National Cannabis Radio (