Written by attorney Dwane M Cates

Highway Drug Stops and Border Patrol in Arizona

After September 11, 2001, there has been an increased effort to control borders in the United States to help curtail terrorism. Because Arizona shares a 370 mile long border with Mexico, Arizona has been the frontline in the battle against illegal immigration and the war on drugs.

Recent data from the federal government shows that the vast majority of drug cases in Arizona involve marijuana, almost three out of four, and powder cocaine and methamphetamine make up the other fourth almost equally. Heroin, crack cocaine and other drugs together account for less than three percent of drug cases.

According to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, in 2007, 24,605 drug violators were convicted in Arizona. Almost two out of three were felony convictions. The convictions were most often for marijuana or paraphernalia possession with methamphetamine possession charges coming in third.

Border Patrol Enforcement

The Border Patrol has adopted a strategy that not only controls the perimeter by enforcing the line at the border, but also uses a defense in depth component that includes checkpoints further away from the border. Border Patrol agents at these checkpoints observe and stop vehicles. Most of the checkpoints have been set up as permanent checkpoints but some are temporary and can be moved from one location to another. They are generally set up 25 to 75 miles from the border.

In Arizona some of these checkpoints are on I-8, I-15 and I-40. At the checkpoints, traffic is slowed or stopped as the cars and trucks go through. The Border Patrol agents observe the cars and occupants and use dogs that are trained to detect drugs and hidden people. Vehicles may be waved through or stopped and the occupants questioned to determine whether further inspection is necessary. Some of the resources used by the Border Patrol at permanent checkpoints include computers with access to the FBI fingerprinting identifications system, machines to inspect vehicles with gamma ray technology and vehicle lifts to inspect underneath vehicles.

Drug sniffing dogs are trained to associate the scent of drugs with a reward and to respond aggressively, pawing the ground, or passively, just sitting down, when the dog smells drugs. However, even well-trained dogs are not infallible. Generally, the Border Patrol has high standards for the dogs they use, but the dogs may not always be accurate and reliable. Sometimes the dogs are not handled properly. One example would be working the dogs for too long without a break.

In addition to boarder control checkpoints, cars may also be stopped on the interstates for a minor infraction, this is often especially true for out of state rental cars. In a common scenario, the officer will often give a warning ticket and as you are walking back to your car they will ask if they can search your car. If they have reasonable suspicion, and you refuse the search, they may try and hold you until an officer with a drug sniffing dog can get to the scene. Once a properly trained and certified drug dog hits on your car, the officers have probable cause to search your vehicle. For this reason, if you have been stopped on I-8, I-15 or I-40, it is important to know your rights and not give them up without consulting a lawyer.

Drugs are Detected

Arizona has very tough drug laws. Under Arizona law, marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia are both felonies. In addition, a person who is found to be a serious drug offender under Arizona law may be sentenced to life imprisonment. Generally, if a small amount of drugs is found, the accused receives a citation and must report back to a Justice Court. For example, someone apprehended at the eastbound I-8 checkpoint usually is required to appear at the Wellton Justice Court. If a larger amount is found the accused may be arrested and often those cases will be heard by a Superior Court. A defendant may be eligible for a court program that allows for drug treatment in lieu of conviction if certain requirements are met.

Some people have raised questions about whether this increased enforcement of our borders has been effective in reducing terrorism, illegal immigration and drug smuggling. More importantly, is it worth the loss of civil liberties and expectations of privacy?

If you are facing charges in Arizona for possession of drugs or paraphernalia, it is important that you have the advice of attorneys experienced in this area of the law. Having a felony on your record may affect your rights in various ways, including your right to vote, your ability to get a job or your eligibility for financial aid for college.

Additional resources provided by the author

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