In September 2008, social worker Vince Peppard and his wife drove to Mexico to purchase some tiles. On the way back, Peppard was stopped at a federal border security checkpoint on a road east of San Diego. According to Peppard, once he reached the checkpoint, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents asked to search his car. He refused. He says he was then detained and his car “ransacked.” The agents found nothing illegal.
Peppard, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is now a plaintiff in a suit the organization has filed against the federal government. The ACLU says that since September 11, 2001, the federal government has been steadily stretching the limits of U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, the 1976 Supreme Court decision that allows the government to set up checkpoints like the one where Peppard was stopped. Under that decision, the checkpoints must be within 100 miles of the border, and they have to be aimed at catching illegal immigrants or smugglers. The ACLU says the Department of Homeland Security is using that case coupled with the terrorism threat to conduct searches more aggressive and invasive than the “minimal intrusion” allowed by Martinez-Fuerte.
The territory within 100 miles of every border and coastline encompasses about 190 million people, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population. Should the courts uphold suspicionless and increasingly invasive border searches under a vague national security exception, most Americans could essentially forfeit their Fourth Amendment rights in exchange for the privilege of driving.