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Lawsuit Challenges Constitutionality Of Border Patrol Checkpoints On I-93

Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Civil liberties groups in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont are suing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol over the use of checkpoints far from international borders, alleging the stops amount to unconstitutional searches that violate the Fourth Amendment. 

Three ACLU chapters filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of Jesse Drewniak, a New Hampshire man cited for a minor drug offense after being stopped at a checkpoint in Woodstock, NH on Interstate 93 approximately 90 miles from the Canadian border.

[Click here to read NHPR's previous coverage of Border Patrol checkpoints in Woodstock.]

The ACLU affiliates allege that the Border Patrol’s primary purpose for the checkpoints is “general crime control and interdiction” rather than the enforcement of immigration law.

“Border Patrol is charged with protecting the border,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire in a statement. “It is unconstitutional for Border Patrol to use interior checkpoints, nearly 100 miles from the border, as a ruse to unlawfully search and seize people for the purpose of general crime control. Yet this is exactly what Border Patrol is doing with checkpoints in northern New England.”

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Under federal regulations, Border Patrol agents are permitted to stage checkpoints within 100 miles of the international border, including the nautical border. That 100-mile zone includes the entire state of New Hampshire, as well as Maine, Vermont and several other states.

Courts have upheld the constitutionality of inland checkpoints as long as they can be proven effective at detaining people who have crossed the border illegally, and don’t unduly burden citizens. 

Border Patrol has staged multiple checkpoints in Woodstock in recent years, resulting in the detention of people on immigration charges as well as well as for drug possession. The Woodstock Police Department and New Hampshire State Police have coordinated with Border Patrol agents during some of the checkpoints. 

In 2017, Drewniak was returning from a fishing trip in the White Mountains when he passed through a checkpoint in the southbound lanes of I-93. According to the lawsuit, Border Patrol agents used a drug-sniffing dog and ultimately recovered a small amount of cannabis. 

More than two dozen citizens were also charged with low-level possession charges during the checkpoint.

In 2018, a New Hampshire circuit court judgeruled that the evidenceobtained through the use of drug sniffing dogs violated the New Hampshire Constitution because the search was performed without a warrant or reasonable suspicion. The charges against Drewniak and 15 other defendants were dropped.

Drewniak’s lawsuit alleges he suffers from ongoing emotional distress from the incident. He is seeking financial damages, and an injunction to prevent Border Patrol agents from staging checkpoints that are aimed at drug arrests rather than immigration enforcement.

The government hasn’t yet responded to the legal filing.

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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