By Ray Stern - Phoenix New Times
published: March 13, 2008
small sedan slowed as it approached the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint
on a deserted section of Interstate 8 east of Yuma. The car contained
three middle-age women on their way back to the Valley after a planning
retreat in San Diego. The past three days had been idyllic and
productive as the women lounged on the beach, making art and chatting
over ideas for the future of their ceramics business.
self-described hippies had taken marijuana to the beach and were
returning with some of it in the car. One of them, Mary (like others
quoted in this article, she agreed to talk about her experience only if
New Times used a pseudonym) was unapologetic.
"I would never
quit. I like my life, you know?" the 56-year-old says later of her pot
use. "None of us drink. We're leftover people from the '60s and '70s."
the oldest of the group, was driving. She didn't sweat the traffic stop
as her car rolled up. She'd been through this same movable checkpoint
along the stretch of I-8 East before and had never had a problem.
time, something was different. She noticed that the checkpoint seemed
better staffed than usual. One green-shirted agent manned a small,
white booth while others milled about near tents, office-trailers, and
patrol cars. Another agent walked a dog, which held its snout high as
it sniffed along a line of slowing vehicles.
As Mary's sedan
neared, the dog tensed as if it had seen a rabbit, straining at its
leash and jerking its human handler forward. Mary was told to park her
car under a large canopy to the right of the road. An agent walked up
to the driver's-side window and asked her if she would consent to a
search of the vehicle.
"This was pretty intimidating," she
recalls. "They had guns and were wearing fatigues. We're three little
ladies from Phoenix who are calm, peaceful people."
The women were asked to step out and stand a few feet away as the dog trounced through the car.
A moment later, one of the agents confronted the group.
you obviously don't have any illegal immigrants in the car," he said.
"My dog signaled for marijuana. Does anyone want to say anything?"
women said nothing, but the agents soon found about a half-ounce of pot
and a small wooden pipe. The women were made to sit in a holding cell
in one of the Border Patrol trailers.
"I was, like, 'Come on.
I'm a grandma,'" says Mary. But the agents showed no reaction to her
plea. Mary took the blame for the pot and paraphernalia because she
says it was "critical" that her business partners have no arrest record.
agent handed Mary, who had never before been busted for anything
harsher than a traffic violation, a citation listing two charges:
possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.
For additional photos from the border check points near Yuma, check out the slide show: Pot Shots
Stories like Mary's used to be rare, compared to what's going on at the Border Patrol's two Yuma Sector checkpoints nowadays.
the past, small-time drug users were busted occasionally. The Border
Patrol has used dogs at its checkpoints for at least two decades,
mainly for the purpose of detecting human cargo. But until a few years
ago, it employed far fewer than it does now, which meant dogs were not
routinely placed at the checkpoints near Yuma. Also, the checkpoints
were often closed because fewer agents were available to staff them.
late 2005, though, the number of Yuma Sector agents has risen 55
percent — to about 850 agents, up from 550, as of January. Augmenting
those agents are hundreds of National Guard soldiers who are part of a
6,000-troop border-protection plan called Operation Jump Start, ordered
by President Bush in mid-2006.
The number of K9 dogs also has
increased, to more than 30, up from four in 1999. The animals are
trained to sniff out hidden human beings, marijuana, cocaine,
methamphetamine, heroin, and meth-related drugs such as Ecstasy.
beefed-up resources and the addition of more than 50 miles of fencing
along the border south of the Yuma area have slowed illegal immigration
in the sector to a trickle compared with what it was just two years ago.
days, the checkpoints on eastbound Interstate 8 and northbound Arizona
95 near Yuma (a passageway to the I-10 and I-40 corridors linking
Arizona and California) are open 24 hours a day. And with the addition
of seven times more K9 dogs, they have become the biggest weed traps in
Strictly in terms of quantity, other checkpoints
catch more dope. The Border Patrol is allowed to set up roadblocks as
far as 100 miles from any national border, and it operates 33 permanent
and numerous other "tactical" or movable checkpoints on the Mexican and
Canadian frontiers. In the Southwest, checkpoints are typically found
on California's north-south I-5, numerous small highways near Mexico,
such as Arizona's Highway 86, and along I-10 between Tucson and El
Paso, Texas. The Border Patrol sometimes puts up movable checkpoints on
I-10 between Phoenix and Los Angeles, but it's rare to encounter one.
dogs at some of the checkpoints, especially the ones south of Tucson
and through Texas, find literally tons of marijuana being smuggled from
But the Border Patrol and other law enforcement
officials in the Southwest report that no checkpoints in the United
States bust as many small-time marijuana users as the ones near Yuma,
on I-8 and Arizona 95.
The past three years have seen an
explosion of such cases. In just 11 months last year, the two
checkpoints nabbed more than 1,200 people for possession of marijuana —
and usually for smaller amounts than what Mary carried.
majority of the busts occurred at the checkpoint along eastbound I-8,
the freeway that carries vacationers between Arizona and San Diego.
are toughest for people caught with hard drugs. Possession of such
drugs as meth, cocaine, or heroin will result in a long drive to the
county jail in Yuma. But even for personal amounts of marijuana,
citations are issued that can result in fines and big hassles.
I-8 checkpoint garnered national attention in January after rapper Lil
Wayne was arrested there. He was charged with carrying marijuana,
cocaine, Ecstasy, and a handgun. He pleaded not guilty last month.
would argue that big dope smugglers or those carrying an arsenal of
hard drugs shouldn't feel the pinch of the law. If it weren't for the
trained dogs, smugglers could run thousands of pounds of drugs through
the Yuma Sector checkpoints.
But the vast majority of people
getting busted at checkpoints in Arizona near Yuma aren't smugglers or
illegal immigrants. They aren't even big-shot partiers like Lil Wayne.
They're just average people who happen to be carrying a smidgen of
marijuana in their vehicles.
They might never be caught if it
weren't for an exception granted the Border Patrol to set up roadblocks
with trained dogs. All the Border Patrol checkpoints, not just the ones
near Yuma, take advantage of special powers that experts say contradict
normal constitutional search-and-seizure rules.
marijuana users have been caught that, last year, Yuma officials had to
streamline the legal process. In a program unique to the Yuma Sector,
Border Patrol agents were given the authority to write citations in
low-quantity marijuana cases as though they were deputies working for
the Yuma County Sheriff's Office.
The program even was anointed with a catchy federal handle: Operation Citation.
deputizing of the federal agents means it's easier than ever to get
busted. And the program reflects how busting minor pot users is what
the agents working at the checkpoints — whose primary mission is
supposed to be stopping illegal human trafficking — spend much of their
A review of 1,052 of the citations issued last
year showed that more than 40 percent were issued to Arizonans,
presumably on their way back from California. Of those, Phoenix and
Tucson residents made up the majority. The rest were split among
Californians, 44 percent, and people from other states. A handful of
those cited listed hometowns in other countries, including Mexico,
Spain, England, and Austria.
Most were cited for possessing
just a few grams of marijuana, or a pipe containing marijuana residue.
(A gram is about the weight of a large paper clip).
more than one person in the vehicle and no one admits ownership of the
marijuana, Border Patrol policy dictates that the citation goes to the
It's not just the number of dogs that makes the Yuma
checkpoints so different. Border Patrol checkpoints just a few miles
away near El Centro, California, including a new one on westbound I-8,
also use dogs. But marijuana laws are far more lax in California,
resulting in far fewer citations and much-less-serious legal problems.
the unlikely event that you do get busted on your way to San Diego for
a small amount of marijuana at the California-side I-8 checkpoint west
of the state line, you will be hit with nothing more than a $100 fine.
In California, possession of an ounce or less of pot is not even
prosecuted as a misdemeanor, it's a base-level "infraction."
you'd better not risk bringing even a tiny amount of pot back from the
beach — because nothing demonstrates how differently marijuana
possession is viewed officially by California compared to Arizona than
the checkpoint busts this side of Yuma.
Arizona has the
stiffest marijuana laws in the country. Possession of any amount or of
any kind of drug paraphernalia (even a small pipe) is technically a
Technically, because charges against small-time users
are knocked down to misdemeanors in Yuma County and in other Arizona
counties, including Maricopa. Leniency is one reason — marijuana isn't
considered as dangerous as other drugs. But it's also true that, if
prosecuted as felonies, the sheer number of marijuana cases would
overwhelm local court systems.
Still, a misdemeanor conviction
for pot means that you must pay hundreds of dollars in fines in
Arizona. And, it's not uncommon for defendants to fork over thousands
of dollars in attorney fees trying to avoid a conviction — which, for
some, means loss of a job or disqualification for federal financial aid.
Border Patrol is unapologetic about its right turn toward busting
hordes of minor drug offenders at the Yuma-area checkpoints. In fact,
Jeremy Schappell, spokesman for the Yuma Sector, brags that the agency
practices zero tolerance when it comes to any amount of illegal
substances or paraphernalia.
"If we get just a pipe, they are getting written up," Schappell says. "If it's a seed, they are getting written up."
drug-sniffing dogs at checkpoints to catch small-time marijuana users
probably seems like a smart idea to Americans who view drug use as
However, keeping in mind the Fourth
Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures,
judges have traditionally taken a dim view of such "suspicion-less"
stops and searches of vehicles.
After first taking office in
1993, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a former DEA agent, proposed staking out main
roads in and out of Maricopa County with checkpoints. Then-County
Attorney Rick Romley put the kibosh on Arpaio's idea, saying it was
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down
another drug checkpoint proposal in Indianapolis vs. Edmond. In the
landmark case, Indianapolis police set up roadblocks staffed by dogs
and their handlers, ultimately busting about 50 people with drugs.
Supreme Court had, in the past, found two major exceptions to its
general disapproval of police checkpoints. In 1990's Michigan Dept. of
State Police vs. Sitz, the High Court allowed DUI checkpoints. And in
1976's United States vs. Martinez-Fuerte, it gave the Border Patrol the
right to set up checkpoints that seek to uncover illegal immigrants —
with the secondary purpose of finding drugs.
"We have never
approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect
evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing," the Supreme Court majority
wrote in the Indiana case. "The [Indianapolis] checkpoints violate the
The notion of a checkpoint where police can
pull over every single vehicle and search it chills many Americans.
Justice Clarence Thomas, no beacon of liberal thought, made that clear
in his dissenting opinion in the 2000 case. Though Thomas felt
compelled to side with the Indianapolis police because of court
precedents, he challenged the basis of the precedents strongly.
am not convinced that Sitz and Martinez-Fuerte were correctly decided,"
Thomas wrote. "Indeed, I rather doubt that the framers of the Fourth
Amendment would have considered 'reasonable' a program of
indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing."
The new agreement with Yuma County blurs the distinction between drug and immigration checkpoints.
Yuma County Sheriff's Office, like all other law enforcement agencies
in the country, cannot legally operate a K9 checkpoint. But in Yuma
County, Border Patrol agents are deputized to write local-jurisdiction
citations — an end run around long-standing constitutional protections
against stopping motorists without probable cause.
Patrol takes pains to explain that it's running immigration
checkpoints, with the secondary mission of detecting illegal drugs,
just as the Supreme Court's legal interpretation allows.
Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Law Reform
Project in Santa Cruz, California, says the procedures at the Yuma
checkpoints are a good example of how increased police powers for one
purpose often end up being used for another. The supposed need for an
immigration checkpoint is "thin justification" for busting every drug
user passing through, he insists.
"Even if somebody has no
sympathy for a marijuana user," Boyd says, "you should still be
concerned that the U.S. government is saying the border is an area
where the U.S. Constitution is suspended."
On a recent winter
day at the I-8 East checkpoint, two skinny young Hispanic women are led
away in handcuffs. A Department of Public Safety Officer helps them
into his patrol car for a trip to the Yuma County Jail.
A checkpoint dog found meth in the women's car.
dogs working the checkpoint that day were Belgian Malinoises, though
the agency also uses German shepherds, Labradors, and other breeds.
They're kept fit and trim — so lean, in fact, that motorists often urge
the agents to feed them more. It takes about six weeks to train the
dogs to sniff out drugs and people, then another six weeks to train
their handlers, says Wes Burch, the Yuma Sector's K9 coordinator.
the animals, the work is a fun game of hide and seek. Sometimes, they
can smell drugs from dozens of feet away as they walk along the queue
of slowly rolling vehicles. A dog's body posture changes if it catches
a whiff of drugs, becoming more rigid and focused. Its breathing
quickens. After the vehicle is emptied of visible occupants, the dog is
nearly infallible at finding drugs or people hidden inside. If drugs
don't turn up, it doesn't mean they weren't there earlier. A Border
Patrol K9's sense of smell is so acute, agents say, that it can tell if
someone smoked marijuana in or near a vehicle days before the
When they find drugs, the dogs are rewarded
with a small burlap toy for a few moments. The animals seem to love
their job, eagerly sniffing within inches of vehicles, putting their
paws on truck bumpers, and scanning the air with their snouts.
days, there are enough trained canines to allow for rotating shifts.
Still, the job is fairly intense for the dogs. They can focus on their
work for only 15 or 20 minutes at a time before needing a break; their
sense of smell is diminished when they become overheated. Despite the
boost in dog teams that has led to increased drug busts, it's possible
to pass through the checkpoints without ever seeing a dog.
least three dogs are working on the day New Times visits the I-8 East
checkpoint, but the animals rest more than half of the time. Even when
the dogs are ready, sometimes the line of vehicles becomes too long and
has to be "flushed," as the agents put it. All but the most suspicious
autos are waved through quickly. Otherwise, commerce and the free flow
of traffic on the highway would be disrupted, agents say.
K9 handler walks far down the shoulder of I-8, using his dog to sniff
out small bags of drugs and paraphernalia often discarded by
approaching drivers or passengers. He finds nothing on this day, but
it's common to find such contraband near the checkpoint, says
Schappell, the federal agency's Yuma spokesman.
wonders why a Border Patrol sign announcing the checkpoint about a mile
up the road doesn't warn all drug users to dump their stashes. But he
fails to realize that most people have no idea their vehicles are about
to be sniffed by a dog, with major consequences if the animal smells
The I-8 East checkpoint does have a sign
declaring, "Working Dogs Ahead." But it's next to the checkpoint booth
and the dogs, making it useless as a warning.
A lean, gray
Belgian Malinois suddenly appears happier, its attention focused on a
gold Chrysler 300. It tugs firmly at its short, leather leash, and its
handler motions to another agent, who asks the 20-something driver to
pull over beneath a shade tent. The young man sits on a folding chair
for a few minutes, looking nervous. As the Malinois bounces through his
car, he leans forward with his head in his hands.
But the dog finds nothing, and driver is released.
far as the agents are concerned, a K9 is never wrong: The man must have
had drugs in or around his car recently that left enough lingering
molecules to alert the dog.
To Yuma County, the Border Patrol's dogs look more like geese — as in the ones laying golden eggs.
brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past few years.
Until a change was made last fall, fines ranged between $750 and $1,400
for the small-time marijuana violators picked up at the checkpoints.
Now, fines usually run $400 — but that still works out to be a lot of
money considering there have been more than a thousand cases a year.
And considering that federal agents and their dogs do most of the work.
Yuma County officials insist it's not about the money. They say it's a black-and-white issue. Marijuana is illegal.
the law, and we like enforcing the law," says Roger Nelson, chief
deputy Yuma County attorney for criminal matters. "We're not going to
apologize for it, and we don't think there's anything wrong with having
drug-sniffing dogs at an immigration checkpoint."
Border Patrol is a federal agency that's using its resources to do the
work of Yuma County authorities, Schappell says it "can't turn a blind
eye" to the casual users picked up because of the extra dogs.
issue of whether the federal Border Patrol officers near Yuma should be
busting small-time drug offenders is a subject made raw over the recent
death of a comrade.
In mid-January, Agent Luis Aguilar was run
over in the sand dunes west of Yuma by a Mexican national driving a
Hummer loaded with drugs.
"My opinion is that the grandma
coming through with the ounce of marijuana — how she got the marijuana
is from the Hummer that ran over Luis Aguilar," Schappell says.
Yuma Sector's spokesman finds it ironic that media focused far more on
the January 22 arrest of entertainer Lil Wayne, which happened two days
before a memorial service was held for Aguilar. Media calls poured in
from all over the world about the rapper, but reporters weren't very
interested in the dead agent.
Lil Wayne, whose real name is
Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., was riding in an RV with 11 friends when a
dog targeted his vehicle at the I-8 East checkpoint. A subsequent
search turned up about a quarter-pound of pot, an ounce of cocaine, 41
grams of Ecstasy, and a handgun.
Interest in what happened to
Lil Wayne has been running so high that the Yuma Superior Court plans
to air live coverage of his upcoming trial (no date for which has been
announced) on its Web site.
Another big catch apparently flew
under the media's radar: Officials say that in 2006, a dog at the I-8
East checkpoint hit on the tour bus of the Crosby, Stills and Nash
band, resulting in an arrest for hashish. It wasn't one of the famous
musicians who got nabbed, but a member of their entourage.
(because it would make sense to rationalize the huge number of minor
drug arrests as a means of keeping impaired motorists off the highway),
none of the marijuana users cited at the Yuma Sector checkpoints was
busted for driving under the influence.
The Border Patrol's
heightened checkpoint activity played a big role in boosting the number
of misdemeanor cases handled by the Yuma County Attorney's office from
980 in 2000 to more than 1,500 by 2005.
Then it really got
busy. Nelson says his office prosecuted more than 2,500 misdemeanors
last year. And that's despite the fact that county attorneys routinely
dismiss as many as 20 percent of the marijuana cases as too legally
tenuous to bother with.
Not surprisingly, Nelson says it was
his office that recommended the partnership between the Border Patrol
and the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, which led to the current
arrangement of having the federal agents write Arizona tickets.
Operation Citation, the Border Patrol agents would make a seizure, then
forward the motorist's name to the county attorney's office. Nelson
says prosecutors would be forced to send a registered letter to each
defendant at the cost of $5 or $6 each. And sheriff's deputies
routinely had to schlep out to the Border Patrol stations to pick up
the contraband for evidence, then write a slew of citations.
Now, county officers are no longer faced with the dilemma of either doing all that work or ignoring the fine-producing cases.
for the people busted at the checkpoints who talked to New Times, they
are angry that an immigration-enforcement agency caught them in its
lair. They believe it's only natural that they had no idea they would
be detained, because they weren't carrying a secret cargo of illegal
"I don't mean to be a conspiracy theory person, but
you have to wonder if we are heading for the same things the Germans
went through," says Mary, the pot-smoking grandmother. "It's only a
matter of time before we see [checkpoints] on I-17 and every other
"It definitely didn't feel American," a member
of a small Texas rock band says about the I-8 East checkpoint, after
receiving a citation in June. "Our civil liberties are kind of slowly
Normally, a police officer is allowed to pull
over a motorist only if a traffic violation (anything from erratic
driving to a busted tail light) is observed. Then, the officer has
probable cause to, say, shine a flashlight into the car to look for
Though there was no such probable cause in the
Yuma County pot cases, the Border Patrol is exempted from that
requirement by the Supreme Court, as noted earlier in this story.
busted motorists whom New Times interviewed were particularly chagrined
that a dog wound up leading officers to the pot they had stashed in
"We were stupefied by the whole thing," says a
39-year-old Colorado mother of two teenagers charged with possessing
about four grams of marijuana. She'd been on a road trip with a friend
from Texas to San Diego, and they'd stopped in Tucson to visit a mutual
friend, who gave them the pot. A highway accident temporarily closed
I-8 East, diverting traffic north from Yuma onto Highway 95 — right
into the northbound checkpoint where a Border Patrol dog was waiting
"We thought we were going to be thrown in prison or
jail or something," she says. "It was one of the scariest things I've
ever been through."
She later paid $1,600 for an attorney (to avoid having to fly back to Yuma for a court date) and a $400 fine.
In cases like that of the Colorado woman, leniency figured into the equation, according to Yuma County prosecutors.
the chief deputy county attorney for criminal matters, says his office
prosecutes minor marijuana cases as misdemeanors to provide "the
lenience that we believe these crimes deserve."
Truth is, Yuma
County's courts would be swamped if each small-time pot case were
handled as the felony that state law declares it, says Lil Wayne's Yuma
attorney, James Tilson. The county, like most others in the state these
days, is under a major budget crunch.
So, there's a practical
reason for dealing with people caught with small amounts of marijuana
quickly and efficiently. Doing it otherwise, simply doesn't pencil out.
arrestees would take felony cases to trial. Even with plea agreements,
such cases take a lot more time, money, and effort to prosecute.
both the financial and human level, "increasing the amount of work you
have doesn't make sense if it's not a serious crime," Tilson says.
for those caught on the Arizona side of the state line, a misdemeanor
still packs a punch. Besides a fine, it also requires defendants or
their lawyers to appear in court, which can get expensive.
the Phoenix grandma, negotiated a deal in which her misdemeanor charge
was dropped in lieu of a $1,200 drug-treatment class. She paid a lawyer
$3,500 to help make the deal.
The Texas musician paid a lawyer $3,500 just to see a $738 fine dropped to $400.
the current system, an innocent person could easily end up with a
ticket just because a pot user left a surprise in the car.
what happened to "Joe," a 48-year-old Peoria man who drove his wife's
car through the checkpoint on his way back from a job in Yuma. Joe's
not a pot smoker and says he fully supports the Border Patrol's mission.
daughter, who's in her 20s, forgot to take her goodies out" of the car,
Joe says. After a dog gave an alert, agents found two used pot pipes in
Rather than place the blame on his daughter, he
paid $1,600 in fines, and was embarrassed recently when the arrest
showed up in a background check while he was trying to rent a house. He
was allowed to move in, but lamented of his new rap sheet: "It just
The worst part, Joe says, is that he could be fired if his boss ever found out about the conviction.
Childers, a criminal defense attorney who worked as a prosecutor for
Imperial County, California, from 2004 to 2006, was surprised to hear
how many checkpoint-related drug cases Yuma County handles.
"What a waste of resources!" the El Centro lawyer says.
California, Childers explains, possession of an ounce or less of
marijuana rates only a $100 fine and is considered a minor infraction
rather than a misdemeanor. And forget the rhetoric heard in Arizona
that violators would be prosecuted even "if it's a seed." This state's
more liberal neighbor requires a "smokable amount" to prosecute the
infraction, Childers says.
The law against marijuana
paraphernalia in California is so lax that Border Patrol agents in the
state who find a pipe or a bong in a checkpoint search can't do
anything other than confiscate it, Childers says.
checkpoint along the westbound lanes of I-8 in Arizona, but three
months ago, the Border Patrol opened a checkpoint on westbound I-8 just
east of El Centro. The agency's El Centro Sector also operates
permanent checkpoints on California highways 86 and 111.
amounts of marijuana are mostly seen as a waste of time for law
enforcement, says Lieutenant George Moreno of the Imperial County
A sheriff's deputy or a California Highway
Patrol officer is obliged to drive out to the El Centro-area checkpoint
if a case is to be made. Moreno says California law disallows
detentions of more than 30 minutes for infractions. So if the amount of
pot is just a few grams and no deputy is near the checkpoint, the
sheriff's office doesn't send anybody out.
"The Border Patrol
knows that we don't have the staffing levels, so they [usually] just
let the person go and they destroy the evidence," he says.
because California's medical-marijuana law is liberal, if such
marijuana users show the correct paperwork to the Border Patrol after
getting stopped, their pot is seized and they're sent on their way,
In the Yuma Sector, low-level busts of people with marijuana are staving off boredom for Border Patrol agents.
Schappell talks almost wistfully of the days when the sector was
hopping with illegal immigrants. Now, agents don't spend much time
chasing down border crossers and hauling in big loads of drugs, he
On a sunny February day, Schappell cruises a sandy
road on the northern side of the imposing security fence that runs from
San Luis to just past the distant Tinajas Altas Mountains on the
horizon. Not a footprint can be seen for miles in the soft earth.
"Anybody who says a fence doesn't work, I say, 'Come to Yuma,'" Schappell says.
number of Border Patrol agents nationally stands at more than 15,000
and is expected to grow to 18,000 by the end of the year. The push
toward greater enforcement against illegal immigrants is gaining
momentum, and agents from Texas to California insist that checkpoints
are a crucial part of the system.
Checkpoints running north
from Tucson and ports of entry in New Mexico and Texas caught the bulk
of the nearly 2 million pounds of marijuana, seven tons of cocaine, and
sizable loads of other drugs seized by the Border Patrol last year.
the Yuma Sector, though, the agency's mission has changed with time.
Now, it's the small-time drug offender feeling the most heat, and the
illegal immigrants and smugglers — who are far more aware of the
checkpoints than the average American citizen — are going elsewhere.
Border Patrol attributes this to the addition of the 300 new Yuma
Sector agents in three years and to the new fence along the
non-mountainous parts of the sector's 125-mile southern border.
drop in apprehensions has been the Border Patrol's biggest success
story. In 2006, Yuma Sector agents caught 118,000 people trying to gain
entry into the United States from Mexico. But last year, only 39,000
people were apprehended in the sector.
Mexicans south of the border has become more common — agents believe
it's a sign of frustration with the new situation.
Still, most Yuma-area Border Patrol agents are now watching over a relatively quiet border.
of the action takes place at the checkpoints, where agents busy
themselves busting the likes of pot-smoking grandmas and musicians.
of the busted marijuana users interviewed by New Times wondered whether
Border Patrol agents had too much time on their hands, considering that
agents expend so much effort to catch people carrying mostly minuscule
amounts of pot. Others wondered whether Operation Citation was just a
clever way to pour money into the Yuma County coffers.
like a toll booth," says a New Mexico man busted for marijuana
possession last year at the I-8 checkpoint with his two sons, in their
Whatever the frustrations of motorists who like to imbibe
in a little pot, drug-sniffing dogs at the Yuma-area checkpoints are
here to stay.
Lloyd Easterling, an assistant chief at the
Border Patrol's Washington headquarters, says the agency is proud of
the Yuma Sector's ongoing effort to nail drug violators.
it's small-time offenders or much-larger-time smugglers, those drugs
are still coming in and out of the neighborhoods," Easterling says. "At
some point, the likelihood is that they came across the border."
Arizona, a misdemeanor conviction for pot means hundreds of dollars in
fines. It's not uncommon for defendants to fork over thousands of
dollars in attorney fees trying to keep from getting a drug record.
shows how differently small-time pot possession is viewed in California
compared to Arizona than the checkpoint busts this side of the state
line. Such Border Patrol busts are rarely pursued by California
authorities. When they are, only a small fine is levied.
1,052 people cited for small amounts of marijuana last year at the
checkpoints near Yuma, 40 percent were Arizonans, presumably on their
way back from California. Of these, most were from the Valley.