WOODSTOCK, N.H. – A new suit filed in federal court this week is challenging the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s use of interior checkpoints as unconstitutional.
Announced Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine branches, the suit alleges CBP’s use of checkpoints for “general crime control” violates prior court rulings limiting their use.
While the suit focuses its attention specifically on a checkpoint regularly managed by U.S. Border Patrol in Woodstock, N.H., the suit invokes the CBP’s use of interior checkpoints across the whole region and questions their effectiveness for enforcing immigration law within the U.S.
CBP typically doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation, but a spokesperson for U.S. Border Patrol previously defended the use of interior checkpoints as “a vital component of U.S. Border Patrol’s national security efforts” in a statement provided to the Messenger in 2019.
“Enforcement actions away from the border are... performed in direct support of immediate border enforcement efforts and as a means of preventing smuggling and criminal organizations from exploiting existing transportation infrastructure to travel to the interior of the United States,” the statement read.
Under U.S. statute, the U.S. Border Patrol’s jurisdiction stretches inland 100 miles from any point along the U.S. border, a wide jurisdiction including virtually all of Vermont.
While headlines in Vermont trained on a more visible checkpoint established on a bridge connecting South Hero to Milton, the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D – Vt., confirmed last year that the majority of CBP’s checkpoints in Vermont had been targeted in a northeastern corner of Franklin County.
According to Leahy’s office, during the 2019 fiscal year, 17 of CBP’s 25 checkpoints in Vermont had been focused near the towns of Richford and Montgomery, leading to four immigration-related arrests and at least one drug-related arrest.
Across New England, checkpoints staffed by CBP agents assigned to the Swanton Sector spanning much of New England’s border with Canada resulted in another 136 immigration-related arrests during that same period of time, according to information reported by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2019.
In their suit filed earlier this week, the ACLU argued messages between CBP agents and local police departments near Woodstock implied that CBP expected to conduct drug enforcement operations with checkpoints planned for August and September in 2017.
During that time period, Jesse Drewniak, a resident of Hudson, N.H., was reportedly subject to a search at the Woodstock checkpoint, during which immigration agents “detained and searched” the Hudson man for an hour, according to the ACLU’s filing.
Drewniak was later charged for unlawful possession of a prohibited substance by local police assisting with the checkpoint after being discovered with a small quantity of hashish oil for a vaping device, according to the suit.
At the time, Drewniak was reportedly in the Woodstock area to fly-fish, a trip he reportedly takes numerous times to the region during the fly-fishing season.
“I found the checkpoint to be terrifying and dehumanizing,” Drewniak said in an ACLU statement, later adding, “This is not the America I know. This experience has caused me anxiety and fear when dealing with law enforcement.”
The ACLU’s suit cites checkpoints elsewhere in Vermont and Maine that resulted in a greater number of drug-related seizures being reported than immigration arrests, and noted many immigration-related arrests involved people who overstayed visas rather than having illegally entered the U.S. from Canada.
Citing legal precedent that challenged CBP’s use of checkpoints for “general crime control” in New Hampshire as unconstitutional, the ACLU argues the checkpoints’ continued use runs afoul of both statute and the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which limits warrantless searches.
As such, the ACLU’s current suit seeks a legal injunction preventing the U.S. Border Patrol from maintaining interior checkpoints within New Hampshire or near Woodstock, N.H., due to the likeliness of continued warrantless searches on legal U.S. residents.
“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,” Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU’s New Hampshire branch, said, “yet this is exactly what Border Patrol is doing with checkpoints in northern New England.”
A federal judge in New Hampshire previously ordered evidence taken for reported drug violations during stops at the August 2017 checkpoint near Woodstock to be suppressed due to the U.S. Border Patrol’s possible violation of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the ACLU’s suit, a checkpoint was recently observed in Maine this summer.
Historically, activists have challenged the CBP’s use of interior checkpoints both for possible constitutional infringements as well as a chilling effect checkpoints are believed to have on local migrant communities fearful of interacting with federal immigration authorities.
There are believed to be roughly 1,500 migrant workers living in the Green Mountain State, according to the Burlington-based advocacy group Migrant Justice.
“People don’t go to the store to buy food, or they don’t go out to buy lunch,” a migrant worker and local activist named David previously told the Messenger through an interpreter. “People are making decisions not to go out because of the fear that they feel.”
Vermont’s Congressional delegation has uniformly opposed the use of interior checkpoints and promoted legislation attempted to curtail the U.S. Border Patrol’s jurisdiction to only 25 miles of the U.S. border and investigate interior checkpoints’ effectiveness in enforcing immigration law.