The United States is a vast country. As Texans know, you can drive for 100 miles or more without even leaving the state. In Europe, driving that far is likely to carry you through several different countries.
What many Americans don’t know, however, is that agents from Customs and Border Patrol have the right under federal law to search people along the border without a search warrant or probable cause. Furthermore, these “border” areas cover a lot more terrain than many people realize. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out that 2 out of 3 Americans live within a 100-mile border zone.
Where Is the 100-Mile Border Zone?
As the name indicates, the 100-mile border zone runs along the entire U.S. coastline, including the entire state of Alaska and Hawaii. If you were to outline with a marker the whole coastline perimeter of the country on a map, and then take a highlighter and highlight 100 miles inward of each coastline, only then can you get a visual footprint of how much ground this covers. It’s important to note that these distances are measured in air miles, not driving miles.
The entire state of Hawaii is within the border, as is the state of New York. The 100-mile border zone also encompasses half of Ohio and all of Florida. It also covers several entire states in New England.
In short, the 100-mile border zone is much larger than most people think when they hear the word “border.” Unless you live in an interior state with no coastline like Oklahoma or New Mexico, you probably live close to one of these zones. The majority of the top 10 largest cities in the country, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, are located within a 100-mile border zone.
Searches in the Border Zone
Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In most cases, police and law enforcement authorities need probable cause to conduct a search, and seizures of property must be conducted pursuant to a warrant backed by probable cause.
However, the rules are different at ports of entry or border crossings, which are located at more than 300 land, air and seaports throughout the country. Under federal law, agents from Customs and Border Patrol have the right to search vehicles without a warrant at any U.S. port of entry. You may have experienced this if you’ve ever crossed the border into Mexico or Canada. It’s quite common for agents to select cars randomly from the line and conduct a thorough inspection.
In the 100-mile border zone, border agents can’t search a vehicle or a person without a warrant or probable cause. As the ACLU states, however, agents don’t always follow the law. In other cases, agents have an incomplete understanding of the law and what the Constitution guarantees.
There have been numerous reports of border patrol agents stopping entire buses, boarding, and proceeding to question everyone on board about their citizenship status. This situation can be a frightening experience, and it’s normal for people to feel uncertain about their rights when confronted by a border agent. It’s even scarier when you’re relatively far from a port of entry and not expecting to encounter border agents.
In Florida in 2018, border agents stopped a Greyhound bus in Ft. Lauderdale and asked individuals on board to show their identification and proof of citizenship. The incident sparked outrage from immigration rights activists and the public. In 2017, a NASA scientist was detained in Houston while traveling home from a work conference, and border agents pressured him to hand over his cell phone so that they could check it.
Your Rights If You’re Stopped by Border Patrol
If you’re stopped at a port of entry, border agents have the right to ask about your citizenship status, as well as any items you’re bringing into the country. While you have the right to remain silent, the ACLU warns that doing so means you’re likely to be detained by border patrol. It’s also possible border patrol will deny you entry to the United States if you refuse to provide identification or answer questions related to your citizenship status.
There have also been numerous stories about “roving patrols” of border agents that conduct random stops. The ACLU says it’s important never to flee one of these roving patrols. Furthermore, border agents must have a reasonable suspicion of an immigration-related crime before they can pull over a vehicle. The ACLU also notes that it’s against the law for border agents to stop a car based on the driver’s ethnicity or race. The occupant of the vehicle has a right to ask border agents the reason behind the stop. As with any law enforcement encounter, it’s best to be polite and non-confrontational when doing so.
Criminal Attorney John Helms
Dallas Federal & State Criminal Defense Lawyer