September 04, 2008

Border Patrol Checkpoints and the 4th Amendment

I am concerned with the increasing levels of police surveillance and control in our society, as I outlined in The Sovietization of America ( and Dick Cheney’s Bookshelf: 1984 ( This is true on the borders with stepped up patrols and increased documentation required for getting into this country. Passports are now required on the Canadian border, which used to only require a drivers license. Visa requirements have been tightened up and visitors are routinely photographed and fingerprinted as they go through Customs. People have been added to "suspected terrorist lists" and no fly lists with no justification required or provided.. At the Republican Convention hundreds were rounded up in mass arrests that also targeted journalists who were trying to cover the demonstrations. The Bush Administration is working on making it easier for the police to conduct surveillance and infiltrate groups they don't like ( That is why it is so disturbing to see this kind of increased police invasiveness right here in our neck of the woods.

I live in a quiet little corner of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. We are not far from Canada; it’s just across the water. However, the border is 3-4 hours away by car, including a ferry ride. From the West End of the Peninsula, add another couple of hours to that drive. That is why I was surprised to find out that the US Border Patrol has been setting up highway checkpoints both on the western side of the Peninsula, on Highway 101 near the town of Forks, and on the eastern side, near the Hood Canal Bridge. Whatever its effectiveness or legality, it does slow traffic and inconvenience the vast majority of people who use the roads. It also gives this police agency an opportunity to detain and 'check up' on anybody. That is un-American.

Any other police agency is prohibited from stopping somebody or conducting a search without probable cause, or a reason to believe that that particular person is committing a crime. That is in the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment says:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Now it doesn't say anything about automobiles, but I think it is safe to say that they would have intended cars to be included if they had existed at the time. The police can't just pull you over and search your car for no reason. The Border Patrol thinks that its mission makes it exempt from that in certain circumstances. Since their mission is to patrol thousands of miles of borders in between official crossing points they believe that they can check anybody they find near the border to make sure they are not sneaking in illegally. Mike Bermudez, public affairs officer for the U.S. Border Patrol is quoted in the Port Townsend Leader ( as saying that Federal law allows them to conduct checkpoints within a "reasonable distance" of the border, which he says has been established as 100 miles. I could point out that the distance from Forks to the border by car is almost 200 miles, but then they would point out that the border is actually in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and it is "only" 56 miles from Forks to the ferry to Vancouver Island. Of course they are supposed to be patrolling between official crossings, which leads us to the conclusion that they are worried about illegal aliens sneaking across the border from Canada by boat, getting into cars and driving down to the checkpoints. Now I do believe that rumrunners used that route during Prohibition but I don't think it has been a problem since.

It turns out that, as far as I can tell not one of the people arrested for suspected immigration violations are accused of crossing the border from Canada. They are accused of crossing the Mexican border illegally. In fact when asked about racial profiling at the checkpoint, according to the same article, "Bermudez said it's a matter of demographics and the reality is that "a larger percentage of people who are in the country illegally are Mexican."". But this raises a serious question. It seems that the Border Patrol is using the proximity of the Canadian border (and it is not even that close) to patrol the Mexican Border, which is, what? 1500 miles away? There is no way that is a "reasonable distance". It is a ridiculous assumption. What they are really doing is looking for people who are already in this country. That is a far cry from preventing people from slipping across the border.

The Peninsula Daily News reports that one of the raids caught a recent graduate, with honors, of Fork High School, who has been in this country since infancy, along with another local student (, sparking a protest demonstration that attracted 60 people. Whether or not you believe that it serves the national interest to deport them, I don't understand how apprehending them in Washington state years after they came here has anything to do with patrolling the border.

And as a previous article in The Leader ( points out, at least some of the people actually arrested were allegedly illegal immigrants illegally harvesting salal, which grows in the National Forest, is in much demand by florists but requires a permit. In order to protect the forests from over harvesting, permits are limited and only available by lottery. So, part of their motivation might be to protect the National Forest. If so, they are way off base. They can't just ignore the 4th Amendment in order to protect the environment. It is also a damned inefficient way to do it.

The checkpoints are also an opportunity to nab people who have outstanding warrants. In fact, some of the people stopped were arrested on warrants that were unrelated to the border or immigration or anything that the Border Patrol is supposed to be doing.

Well what is wrong with grabbing people that they come across if there is a warrant out on them? Here is the scenario. The Border Patrol sets up a checkpoint that forces every car that comes by to slow down to a crawl so they can peer into the car. If they see something "suspicious", like maybe brown skin, they make it stop for further questioning, asking who you are and what you are doing. They ask for identification. Then they take the opportunity to run a check for warrants. All of this is without any probable cause that anybody has done anything wrong. As I mentioned, nobody else is allowed to do this. The only reason the Border Control can get away with it is that they say they need to be able to nab people as they are sneaking across the border. But that is not what they are doing with these checkpoints.

One image we all have of a police state is that they can stop you anytime and demand to inspect “your papers”. These checkpoints are one more step in that direction.

September 01, 2008

The Sovietization of America

I remember reading about the old Soviet Union. How protesters would show up in Red Square and get hauled away by the police just for being there. How the official press only carried the official story and how anybody with a different viewpoint had to pass literature from hand to hand. I remember reading about the Gulags. And I never thought that I would see the day when America would start to look like that.

But it does. Are we as bad as the Soviets were? Well, I guess it depends who you are. If you are in Guantanamo or one of the other secret prisons maintained by the US intelligence services, possibly tortured and held indefinitely without trial, you might find it hard to tell the difference. If the federal government is spying on you because you exercised your First Amendment rights, you might wonder. Or if you are a non-violent demonstrator violently attacked by the police, what are you supposed to think? If you are a journalist detained to keep you from covering a story, you might be justified in making a comparison. On the other hand if you keep quiet and do as you are told, you will probably be OK, but then the same could be said of the Soviet Union. Seriously, I know that things aren't as bad here, now, as they were over there, back then, but it seems more a matter of degree than anything else.

These abuses are not isolated instances. They happen with startling frequency all over the country. It is not just a few bad cops taking off their identification and suppressing dissent; there is a pattern of systematic abuse. And I don't think it is a coincidence that police in riot gear no longer wear any identification. Without a way to identify them, they can't be held accountable.

Now you may say that this is nothing new. Police have been busy breaking up union meetings and arresting "subversives" for years. The Nixon Administration brought phony conspiracy charges against activists. They infiltrated, spied on and actively tried to destroy opponents with programs such as Cointelpro. Japanese Americans were interned in violation of their Constitutional rights during WWII. Conscientious Objectors to war have been, and still are, imprisoned for their beliefs. During the McCarthy era, witchhunts against so called "Communist Front organizations" were rampant. So, no, it isn't new. It is sad and it is infuriating.

More Links:

Attacks on the media:

Amy Goodman & Two Democracy Now! Producers Arrested at RNC Protest (9/2/08 Democracy Now)

I-Witness Video Members Detained En Masse by St.Paul, Minnesota Police in Advance of the 2008 Republican National Convention

Videographer Joe Le Sac's video of his own detention for documenting a demonstration in Tacoma, WA. Joe was also arrested at the Republican Convention in St Paul for the same "crime".
"Film is Not a Crime"

Government surveillance of protesters and "pre-emptive detentions".

Massive police raids on suspected protesters in Minneapolis (

Federal government involved in raids on protesters (

Exposing Bush's historic abuse of power (
This article talks about widespread and systematic government spying on Americans.

ACLU page on Unchecked Government Surveillance

Police Spied on Activists In Md. (Washington Post)

Police Violence against demonstrators

Police use Pepper Spray at point blank range against Port Militarization Reisitance demonstrators blocking the street in Olympia, WA. Note the total non-violence even in response the the police brutality. After the assault began, onlookers did use some "bad" language.

Testimony to Olympia WA City Council on police violence against protesters

As Democratic Convention Kicks Off, Massive Security Presence Clamps Down on Dissent in Denver

Denver Police Arrest 91, Fire Pepper Spray & Pepper Balls at Protesters

Critical Mass Bicyclist Assaulted by NYPD (youtube)
Do I need to mention that the bicyclist was then arrested for assault on an officer? This is standard procedure. The police generally justify their unprovoked attacks by arresting the victim.
without video like this they often get away with it.

Democracy Now! interview with video activist and archivist Eileen Clancy about the Critical Mass incident and why the city is subpoenaing her organization, I-Witness Video, for hundreds of protest videos shot during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Police Violence Shocks Activists, Others at Port of Oakland Protest

Have Taser, Will Torture, by Pierre Tristam

Overkill: The Latest Trend in Policing (Washington Post)

Testimony of Police Brutality Across the Nation

And For a little history

We now know about the details of the Cointelpro program from the 60s and 70s.

However, you can bet that this sort of thing still goes on. We don't usually find out about these things until after the fact. Then we are supposed to rest assured that it just happened in the bad old days, not now. A few years later, another scandal reveals a bit more, but again we get the same old spin. It never goes away, just sometimes it gets more blatant, like it is now.