Traffic Stops at Texas Border Checkpoints May Include Warrantless Searches, Drug Seizures

Among the many exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizing a person or their property, the “border search exception” is one of the oldest and most well-established in the law. Many exceptions to the warrant requirement are based on expediency. For example, the “exigent circumstances exception” applies when taking the time to obtain a warrant is likely to result in the loss or destruction of evidence. The right of a nation to police its own borders, on the other hand, is behind the border search exception. The exception is not without limits, of course, but the list of law enforcement activities allowed during border stops has grown over the years, and it includes drug interdiction activities that are not allowed further inside the nation’s borders. A wide variety of Texas drug seizures occur at border checkpoints like Sierra Blanca, and at other checkpoints along the U.S.-Mexico border.

As a general rule, law enforcement officials must be able to demonstrate probable cause to believe that a search will reveal contraband or evidence of criminal activity. In order to initiate a traffic stop, they must have a reasonable suspicion of some form of wrongdoing. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has identified several situations in which law enforcement can set up checkpoints along public roadways—which result in the stopping of vehicles without probable cause or reasonable suspicion—without violating the Fourth Amendment. For example, courts have held that the public safety interest in preventing driving while intoxicated justifies checkpoints that involve a brief stop to assess whether drivers are too impaired to drive. Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990).

Immigration officials are allowed to operate traffic checkpoints near international borders for the purpose of investigating travelers’ citizenship or immigration status. United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976). This includes sending vehicles to “secondary inspection” areas. The Supreme Court’s ruling specifically addressed the use of checkpoints at fixed locations, like Sierra Blanca in Texas. Immigration officials operating mobile checkpoints or conducting traffic stops must meet a greater standard of reasonable suspicion.

The Supreme Court drew a line with regard to traffic checkpoints when law enforcement’s sole purpose is illegal drug interdiction. The decisions in Sitz and Martinez-Fuerte identified specific public interests—drunk driving prevention and border-area immigration enforcement, respectively—and found that the checkpoints were a reasonable means of attaining these purposes. When the sole purpose of a checkpoint is the interdiction of illegal drugs, the court has held that this is “indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control.” Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 48 (2000).

Since local police cannot use traffic checkpoints for drug interdiction under Edmond, but federal officials can use permanent checkpoints for immigration enforcement, various law enforcement agencies use permanent immigration checkpoints to also look for illegal drugs. The border search exception assists them in this effort. This has led to a wide range of drug seizures, showing evolving tactics among both the people charged with interdicting illegal drugs and those accused of transporting them. These include allegations of transporting marijuana in a van disguised as a telecommunications service vehicle, in a casket in the back of a hearse, and within shipments of watermelons.

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 two decades, board-certified drug crime lawyer Michael J. Brown has defended people in West Texas charged with state and federal offenses. You can contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and skilled criminal justice advocate.

More Blog Posts:

West Texas Drug Busts Show Extent of Law Enforcement’s Power to Search People at the Border, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 2, 2017

How The Border Search Exception May Affect West Texas Residents, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 25, 2017

Federal Lawsuit Addresses Government’s Authority to Detain, Search Individuals at U.S. Border Without a Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2015

Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures [CC0 1.0].