The Bush Administration has recently infringed on yet another civil liberty last Tuesday. Under the auspices of increasing security along the United States’ northern border, the U.S. Border Patrol began setting up unannounced, rotating checkpoints in which federal agents question drivers and passengers on their citizenship and have the right to stop cars and search anything deemed “suspicious.” Their main goals are to catch terrorists and illegal immigrants, although agents will be on the lookout for drugs and weapons as well.
The fact that such checkpoints – common along the southwest border in California and Texas – have been extended north to Michigan continues a disturbing trend toward further eroding civil liberties. According to federal law, the government has the right to search and survey private property within 25 miles of an international border or shoreline. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that such stops and searches are constitutional even without a warrant. While technically legal, this ruling is still cause for alarm.
Federal agents should not randomly stop and search vehicles without suspicion. When the government has the power to single out individuals without hard proof of wrongdoing, it violates the idea of innocent until proven guilty. People have the right to privacy until they unquestionably forfeit that privacy through criminal activities. If these checkpoints were necessary for the immediate protection of the public safety the government would have the right to implement them. However, this new policy is by no means an effective way to eliminate the threat of terrorism.
Practically, an inherent flaw in the traffic checks is that in the quest of seeking out terrorists and illegal immigrants, the primary question asked of drivers and passengers is proof of their citizenship. However, U.S. citizens are not required to carry proof of citizenship. Only alien residents are required to carry some paperwork. If federal agents pull over a “suspicious” U.S. citizen, that individual will very likely not have any means of proving his innocence.
Due to the arbitrary manner in which these traffic checks can be conducted, the potential for abuse is dangerously real. The term “suspicious” is ambiguous at best. When left up to the interpretation of flawed human beings, it is all too easy for personal prejudices to influence decisions. When the main objective of the search and surveillance is to catch terrorists and illegal aliens, it is all too easy for Arabs and other minorities to become the target. Thus, the door to racial profiling is swung wide open.
Traffic checkpoints are not simply temporary, unobtrusive measures taken in desperate times for the public good. Civil rights advocates have reported that similar checkpoints in the southwest have become continuously expanding militarized zones patrolled by federal agents. Michigan risks the same fate unless the government immediately ceases to conduct traffic checks along the border.