Here's How to Exercise Your Rights at Any US Checkpoint

United States Travel
by Emma Thieme Jan 27, 2016

Checkpoints within the 100-mile zone

These are often unexpected checkpoints, possibly located hours away from an actual border. You’ll go through some cones and a cluster of cameras and an agent in a green uniform will begin with the question, ‘Are you a United States citizen?’

Way back in 1953, when our country was employing just 1,100 border patrol agents nationwide, the United States Dept. of Justice established the 100-mile zone, allowing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the ability to set up immigration checkpoints within 100 miles of any entry-point into the United States. Today, these powers are still in place and more than 21,000 border patrol agents are employed by the U.S. government.

One hundred miles may not seem like a lot of ground, but two-thirds of the U.S. population (or 200 million people) lives within 100 miles from either a coastal or land border. And these aren’t just rural areas. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix — all of these cities are in the zone. Entire states even, like Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, are in the zone. According to research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), CBP may be operating about 170 of these internal checkpoints throughout the United States at any given time. And sometimes, they’re much further from a border than 100 miles.

The good news is CBP’s authority at these makeshift checkpoints doesn’t extend that far beyond their ability to set them up in the first place. Regardless of your citizenship status, if you come to one of these checkpoints you are not required to answer any question — and that even includes the first one, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’

If you refuse to cooperate with the CBP agents’ questions, they may try to push or coerce you into pulling off to the side or agreeing to a search. You don’t have to do any of this. As a U.S. citizen and/or person traveling within the U.S., you have the right to safely go on your way without being further questioned or searched. And just to prove that I’m right, here’s a video compilation of people doing exactly that.

Checkpoints at an actual U.S. border

These are the checkpoints that you go through when you’re actually attempting to leave the United States. Your rights at the border are pretty easy to navigate because you don’t have many. You still hold the right to remain silent, however if you don’t cooperate with questions, you’re probably not going to be allowed to cross.

When you attempt to cross a border, you automatically consent to a search. It may not always happen, but CBP agents have the authority to search your belongings without a warrant or probable cause.

And if they have reasonable suspicion to believe you are concealing something illegal or committing an immigration crime, they have the authority to search your body — that could mean a minor pat down, an X-ray scan, or even a strip and/or body cavity search.

So clearly, this is not the time to casually hide something illegal. If you’re crossing a border, bury your weed in Texas dirt or give it to a friend in need, because you can expect to encounter some German Shepherds here and they probably have more rights than you do.

A word on electronic devices…
With reasonable suspicion, Homeland Security border agents have the ability to search any electronic device you might have. This means laptops, cell phones, memory cards, cameras — it’s all up for grabs if CBP thinks you’re committing a crime.

Even without reasonable suspicion, agents may also take a ‘quick look’ at any windows, files or documents you may have open. So if you recently perused through Reddit’s ‘drugs’ thread, you may want to delete some history. Always password protect what you don’t want seen and never voluntarily give that password to a CBP agent.

Drug checkpoints

In the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is completely unconstitutional to set up random checkpoints in order to search for illegal drugs (531 U.S. 32 (2000)). That being said, these checkpoints do still exist (especially in the Midwest) and they are almost always a trap. Here’s how they get you:

Police officers put up signs ‘warning’ drivers of a nearby drug checkpoint. Instead of questioning and searching the drivers who go through the checkpoint, they go after the ones who turn off the road or pull into a nearby rest stop.

So if you’re traveling in a more desolate and rural area, and you come across a sign that says ‘Drug Checkpoint Ahead,’ don’t panic and don’t pull over. Just go through it because constitutionally, it doesn’t really exist in the first place.

You can also contact your state’s ACLU chapter for guidance on whether the upcoming drug checkpoint is real or fake.

Sobriety or DUI checkpoints

These are probably the most common checkpoint in the United States. They are very routine, short stops that give officers the opportunity to quickly run license plate numbers, smell the driver’s breath and shine a flashlight through the car window. Officers also watch oncoming traffic very closely, so trying to evade the stop is a very bad idea.

Just go through it and know that your rights still apply, whether or not you’re under the influence. Police officers do not have the power to search your vehicle unless they believe you are intoxicated, or if you consent to the search yourself. And even so, you still have the right to remain silent throughout the entire process. Never admit to a crime or agree to a plea bargain without an attorney present.

The video below is most accurate for those living in Arizona, however it does a great job of explaining the process of DUI roadblocks and proves that your best option is to remain calm and ask to speak to a lawyer — right from the beginning.

TSA checkpoints

Transportation Security Agency (TSA) agents are part of Homeland Security, therefore they have the ability to search you our your belongings without a search warrant, probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

TSA agents often conduct ‘SPOT’ Interviews — Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques. In some cases a few passengers will be chosen for questioning by ‘behavioral detection’ officers, other times every passenger will receive questioning. You have the right to remain silent here, or give a vague ‘personal business’ answer, however TSA may bring you into secondary screening if you do.

According to this ACLU guide, you also have the right to inquire about skipping body scanners for health reasons and to demand that you be patted down in a private area with a witness.

And if you’re traveling with kids, you can require that they skip the body scanners and keep their shoes on. However, they will have to be patted down.

For a quick reference guide on how to navigate your rights at various U.S. checkpoints, keep this ACLU chart handy.

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