Sierra Blanca Border Patrol Checkpoint No Longer Has Local Sheriff’s Cooperation for Drug Busts

customs tapeThe U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint at Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County, Texas has operated in one form or another for over a century. Located on Interstate Highway 10, the checkpoint has gained a certain notoriety as the site of numerous celebrity “drug busts,” particularly musicians’ tour buses traveling east from Los Angeles. Celebrities arrested at Sierra Blanca in recent years include Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, and Fiona Apple. The checkpoint’s primary purpose is immigration enforcement, while drug interdiction depends largely on the cooperation of local law enforcement. In 2015, the Hudspeth County Sheriff announced that he would no longer take marijuana cases from Border Patrol.

The Supreme Court has held that permanent roadside checkpoints near the U.S.-Mexico border, for the specific purpose of immigration enforcement, do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on warrantless searches and seizures. United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976). The Fourth Amendment does not, however, allow the use of roadblocks and drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches for illegal narcotics, according to the Supreme Court in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000).

According the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Sierra Blanca played a role in immigration enforcement long before the Border Patrol even existed. A single “mounted guard” was stationed at Sierra Blanca and “charged with the enforcement of immigration laws in the area.” The Border Patrol established a station at that location soon after Congress created the agency in 1924. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional 52 years later.

Border Patrol and immigration agents at Sierra Blanca have a certain amount of authority to search individuals and vehicles without a warrant under the border search exception. This supersedes the Supreme Court’s ruling in Edmond to an extent, allowing officers to expand searches beyond immigration offenses to include drugs and other contraband. They have the authority to detain people for a limited period of time, based on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but bringing charges often requires the assistance of local law enforcement. This is where the county sheriff comes in.

As a general rule, federal authorities cannot compel local government agents to participate in federal law enforcement activities. See Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997). Prior to the current sheriff’s tenure, however, Hudspeth County could be an enthusiastic participant in drug interdiction efforts at Sierra Blanca. When singer Fiona Apple complained about her 2012 arrest at the checkpoint for marijuana possession, the sheriff at the time reportedly issued a harsh public response that included the phrase “shut up and sing.”

In 2015, the current Hudspeth County Sheriff announced that he would no longer take cases referred by federal officials at Sierra Blanca. He cited financial factors as the primary reason for his decision, claiming that the federal government was “making…local taxpayers foot the bill for America’s problem.” The Border Patrol can—and certainly will—still detain people at the checkpoint, but it is currently less likely that state drug charges will result.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

For more than 20 years, board-certified drug crime lawyer Michael J. Brown has advocated for the rights of defendants in West Texas state and federal courts. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Search of Vehicle Violates Fourth Amendment When Based Solely on License Plate from State with Legal Marijuana, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 7, 2016

Medical Marijuana Laws Cause Shifts in Court Rulings on Marijuana Odor and Probable Cause for Search Warrants, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 7, 2016

Supreme Court Ruling Could Have Major Impact on Fourth Amendment Rights During Police Searches, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 7, 2016

Photo credit: Tpdwkouaa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.