Check Points, the 4th Amendment and the Militarization of Public Spaces
(MintPress) – The mass proliferation of police checkpoints across America is slowly but markedly eroding civil liberties under the guise of national security and drug interdiction operations. Since 9/11, the U.S. border patrol maintains 71 checkpoints, 32 of them permanent near the U.S.-Mexico border. However, legal rights advocates note the creeping militarization of checkpoints, sometimes 100 miles from any international border, eroding constitutionally-protected Fourth Amendment Rights.
This is in addition to hundreds of arbitrary checkpoints erected by state and local enforcement, most recently in Florida, where dozens of police vehicle checkpoints are expected to help police seize guns, drugs and illegal immigrants.
Sounding the alarm has been a bevy of legal rights advocates claiming that arbitrary police checkpoints constitute a violation of Fourth Amendment constitutional rights prohibiting law enforcement from carrying out unreasonable searches and seizures on citizens and their property.
The Proliferation of Checkpoints
The Fourth Amendment explicitly upholds “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.”
Balancing public safety with individual liberty is a precarious balance for law enforcement, moving decidedly in favor of more public surveillance since 9/11.
According to the U.S. Government accountability office, U.S. border patrol maintains 71 checkpoints, 32 permanent ones near the U.S-Mexico border. Several smaller checkpoints in New York and Vermont have also been established near the Northern border with Canada.
While it remains unclear whether these inspection points dissuaded would-be “illegal immigrants” from entering the U.S., the precipitous drop in the numbers attempting to cross the U.S-Mexico border creates doubts as to purpose of these roadblocks and checkpoints.
Border checkpoints may help to cut down on illegal border crossings and drug smuggling. However, new permanent checkpoints, sometimes 100 miles away from any international border, are cause for concern.
Harassing U.S. Citizens and Legal International Travelers
Alex Jones, the controversial radio talk show host, exposed a federal checkpoint in Texas, nearly 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in a 2011 report. Jones, at the center of the gun debate controversy following the Sandy Hook elementary shooting, has not shied away from contentious civil liberties issues.
“Citizens everywhere are becoming outraged at these Nazi-style checkpoints,” said Jones in a radio report following his experience at a Texas checkpoint.
“We’ve documented in a lot of research across the country. California, Arizona, Vermont, Washington State — they will go 100 miles deep with these and it is just a bonanza of federal harassment, and now they are setting up more everywhere,” added Jones.
This, however, remains constitutional, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Under the current laws, federal authorities can set up checkpoints within 300 miles of the border,” Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU Minnesota chapter, told Mint Press News.
Steven Anderson, a citizen activist, recorded a similar interaction in California in July 2012. Both Anderson and others believe that these checkpoints, questioning average Americans about their citizenship, is a senseless form of harassment.
Beyond the infringement upon constitutional rights is a disastrous “war on drugs” policy that has informed the checkpoints, harassment of citizens and legal visitors to the U.S. Although Samuelson would not agree with Alex Jones’ assertion that we are living in a police state, he does believe that the checkpoints significantly erode citizen rights.
“I blame the war on drugs. It has cost this country trillions of dollars and has resulted in the severe weakening of the Fourth Amendment, the mass incarceration of African-American males and has created heavily-policed zones within inner cities,” Samuelson said. “The war on drugs has destabilized Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and other states in the region and frankly, has not accomplished its goal.”
These accounts are underscored by a 2011 report published in the Chronicle for Higher Education: “University officials and immigration attorneys interviewed by The Chronicle told of nearly two dozen incidents in which students or scholars were inappropriately detained at domestic stops by customs officers.”
Indeed, the issue also affects international students, legally traveling to the United States to study.
Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester, found that hundreds of international students have been questioned or inconvenienced in their travels to Rochester, a city approximately 75 miles from Canada. “It feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980,” he said.
Jensen and University officials have not reported any international student detentions, but have reports of long waits, border patrol harassment and fines against students who don’t have all their paperwork immediately ready for inspection at the time of the border patrol search.
Even sobriety checkpoints by local and state police have become a contentious issue. Despite catching countless drunk drivers, preventing deaths and the destruction of property, civil liberties advocates have challenged the legality of these arbitrary police searches.
In 1990, the Michigan State Supreme court found sobriety checkpoints to be unconstitutional. However, when put before the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices overruled the lower court ruling in a 6-3 decision in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz (1990); the Supreme Court found properly conducted sobriety checkpoints to be constitutional.
Ten states: Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all prohibit police sobriety checkpoints, believing that they violate citizens’ constitutional rights. Although not legislating against them, Alaska and Montana police do not conduct sobriety checkpoints.
Even in states that do allow sobriety checkpoints, there must be “individualized suspicion” when checking vehicles or singling out drivers for breathalyzer tests.
The Florida highway patrol will be establishing several new checkpoints this month, an effort designed to catch drunk drivers, illegal immigrants, guns and illegal weapons. The issue of public surveillance is not limited to police inspections.
As early as 2015, state and federal authorities could have eyes in the sky, monitoring citizen movements through the use of unmanned aerial drones.
Drones: coming to a town near you
The nationwide discussion of drones is particularly salient since President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Like Obama, Brennan has expressed his support for drones as a legitimate means to gather intelligence and thwart acts of terror against the U.S.
Brennan was one of the key figures behind the “kill list,” a secretive document authorizing the illegal assassination of suspected terrorists, some of whom are U.S. citizens.
Citizens have not accepted the plans for domestic drones quietly. At least 11 states have proposed bills in recent months, limiting the use of the surveillance technology through anti-drone laws. States including Virginia, Montana, Maine, Oklahoma, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Florida, Oregon and California all have anti-drone bills in the pipeline outlining varying restrictions on their use.
This could set up a future clash between state governments and the Obama administration seeking to expand the number of drones flying over U.S. airspace, as early as 2015.
The technology is advancing at a rapid rate, reportedly allowing law enforcement to use inferred and facial recognition technologies. In the near future, the Congressional Research Service reports that drones could be equipped with technology that could see through the walls of buildings.
The use of drones, checkpoints and other surveillance by state and federal authorities remains necessary, but must be limited to those uses that do not significantly infringe upon citizen freedoms. All are connected to the same failed drug war policies that have failed to decrease drug use and criminal trafficking.
“The war on drugs is what is driving the checkpoints, the drones, and the increased policing,” Samuelson added.
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