VPR News
5:40 pm
Mon September 9, 2013

Criminal Cases Raise Questions About Border Patrol Authority

A recent Vermont Superior Court ruling has raised questions about whether US Border Patrol agents may detain motorists without explanation while waiting for state or local law enforcers to arrive on the scene.

And it’s not the only case to test that authority.

United States Border Patrol logo
Credit Wikimedia / US Department Of Homeland Security

According to court documents, 29-year-old Meaghan Leary, of Derby, was in her car parked on the side of a road in early June when Border Patrol Officer William Boyd opened her car door. It was about 11:30 at night and Boyd was on his way to work. Boyd said Leary seemed “disoriented.” She declined help, denied drinking, and started to leave, but Boyd took her keys.

Shortly afterwards, another agent arrived and detained Leary until a state trooper showed up, almost an hour later. The trooper cited Leary for driving under the influence. Leary’s attorney, David Sleigh, says Leary should not have been detained by the Border Patrol without just cause.

"When a stop is challenged he has to articulate, that is explain, what facts led him or her to believe a detention is warranted, and in this case there was no articulated set of facts that would have supported detention,” Sleigh said.

Judge Howard Van Benthuysen agreed and dismissed the DUI case. Sleigh says courts are clarifying lines of authority as an increasing number of Border Patrol Agents cover more territory farther and farther from the US border. But not every case raises exactly the same issue. Sometimes, Sleigh says, the traffic stop is made for questionable reasons, even if they are explained.   

“For example, in a case that’s being litigated in District Court up there now, State versus Jacob Carter, Border Patrol agents pulled over Mr. Carter when they saw he had five people in his car and based on their understanding of the make and model of the car assumed that the vehicle only had four seatbelts,” Sleigh said.

In fact, it had five. But seat belts, Sleigh contends, are not within the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction.  Carter was later charged with drug possession, though no drugs were found in the car.

But was that original traffic stop unconstitutional? That’s at issue in this case.

A spokesman for Customs and Border Patrol declined to be interviewed about these detentions but emailed a statement that reads, in part,

“We have and will continue to work diligently with law enforcement partners at all levels in securing our borders, reducing crime and improving the quality of life in our communities on both sides of the border.”

Meanwhile, Orleans County State’s Attorney Alan Franklin has said that he will not appeal Meaghan Leary’s DUI case because it was, in his words, “an anomaly.”

Carter’s case is still pending.