ACLU-WA Opposes Border Patrol's "Constitution-Free Zone"

News Release: 
Monday, December 14, 2009

Constitution-Free Zone

Claiming the right to exercise its authority up to 100 miles from the border, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Border Patrol) has created a Constitution-free Zone on the Olympic Peninsula and nearby areas, where it ignores key provisions of the Bill of Rights. The ACLU-WA has worked all year to document and curtail these aggressive actions.

In 2008, the Border Patrol agents began setting up periodic checkpoints at the Anacortes ferry terminal and highways on the Olympic Peninsula, plus Hwy. 20 in the Cascades. Without any suspicion of wrongdoing, agents stopped all cars and questioned passengers about their nationality – detaining those who do not give "satisfactory" answers. The ACLU objected that such checkpoints interfere with the right to travel freely and do not reflect America’s values. Though touted as a national security measure, in practice the checkpoints have targeted immigrants who pose no security threat.

As grassroots protest against the Border Patrol mounted on the peninsula, we worked with local activists and immigrant rights advocates to educate people about their rights and mobilize opposition. ACLU-WA legislative director Shankar Narayan voiced our concerns before a packed house at a forum organized by the mayor of Port Townsend. At the invitation of the transit officials, ACLU placards on rights with the Border Patrol are displayed on Jefferson County buses. We have distributed "Know Your Rights" materials in Spanish and English.

The Border Patrol has backed off this controversial tactic in recent months, but the ACLU stands ready to file suit if checkpoints are started again and is readying to respond to the agency’s latest tactic. "Roving patrols" of agents are targeting individuals who appear to be Hispanic for questioning and possible arrest. They have stopped cars, boarded buses, and staked out restaurants, courthouses, workplaces, and even playfields. In trips to the peninsula to investigate the situation, ACLU staff saw the climate of fear and intimidation these heavy-handed tactics have created. In addition to preparing litigation options, we have worked with Sen.Maria Cantwell and Rep.Norm Dicks, who have expressed concern about overreaching by the Border Patrol.

Art Is Not Terrorism

Taking pictures of objects or people in plain view is not a crime. Yet many photographers have complained of being harassed by law enforcement since 9/11, as a result of misplaced fears of terrorism. Highlighting this pattern of abuse was an ACLU-WA lawsuit for an art professor who was frisked, handcuffed, and detained for taking photos of power lines in Snohomish.

University of Washington faculty member Shirley Scheier often uses photos of public land and public structures in her artistic prints. In 2005, after she took shots of the towers at a substation – from public property – Snohomish police questioned Scheier about her pictures and said her behavior was "suspicious." Though Scheier was cooperative, identified herself, and explained that the photos were part of an art project, officers detained her in the back of a police car for almost half an hour.

Scheier received an $8,000 payment in a settlement the ACLU-WA reached with Snohomish this June. It came after the U.S. District Court in Seattle found that officers "lacked a reasonable justification for their aggressive tactics in completely restraining Scheier’s personal liberty." ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Venkat Balasubramani along with Steven Fogg and Christina Dimock of Corr Cronin Michelson Baumgardner & Preece LLP represented Scheier.