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Expanded Role Sought at INS Checkpoints

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal officials are seeking court authority to use two major U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints in Southern California for the “dual purpose” of immigration and drug checks, a government prosecutor said in court Monday.

The proposal, which critics see as a significant expansion of the traditional immigration-law role of the checkpoints, has drawn fire from civil libertarians and others concerned about a violation of Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Critics say the “dual purpose” designation, if given court imprimatur, could have far-reaching implications at immigration checkpoints throughout the U.S.-Mexico border area, and, possibly, at law enforcement checkpoints elsewhere in the United States.

“They could just set up drug checkpoints anywhere and start inspecting people,” said Kathryn A. Thickstun, a San Diego attorney who represents a client being prosecuted as a result of a drug seizure at the San Onofre checkpoint on Interstate 5.

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But Patrick K. O’Toole, assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, argued Monday in U.S. District Court in San Diego that the “dual purpose” designation is necessary to combat the ever-expanding volume of drug traffic from Mexico through San Diego County. The county shares a 66-mile border with Mexico.

“All we’re saying here is that there’s a unique problem in this particular district,” O’Toole said. “We wouldn’t be asking this in Omaha.”

U. S. District Judge Lawrence J. Irving is expected to issue a ruling in the matter within the next two weeks. Any decision on the “dual purpose” checkpoint designation is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, lawyers say.

The controversy stems from two cases arising out of separate federal seizures of loads of methamphetamines from vehicles passing through the checkpoints. Defense lawyers are challenging the legality of the seizures.

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The checkpoints--at San Onofre and on Interstate 15 in southern Riverside County--have long been considered key enforcement tools by the Border Patrol. Their purpose is to deter the many undocumented immigrants who have managed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and are heading for the Los Angeles area and elsewhere in the U. S. interior.

In recent years, however, the checkpoints have also been the sites of rising numbers of drug seizures and narcotics-related arrests, facts that U. S. authorities say attests to the increased transport of illicit drugs from Mexico via the two north-south California freeways.

A Supreme Court decision in 1976 gave the government broad authority to briefly detain motorists for possible immigration offenses at the checkpoints. In the current case, prosecutors are seeking similar power to briefly detain and question suspected drug offenders.

Now, checkpoint authorities seeking to detain motorists for possible drug-related offenses must demonstrate what is known as “founded suspicion"--a standard of proof that may involve, for instance, nervousness on the part of the driver, or the appearance of drug paraphernalia or other apparently incriminating evidence in the suspect vehicle. Under the “dual purpose” proposal, the “founded suspicion” standard would be dropped and the broader standards for immigration stops would apply, more easily facilitating drug-related detentions.

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