Judge Tosses 16 Kilos Of Meth Because CBP Couldn't Be Bothered To Obtain Consent For Its X-Ray Search
from the for-the-lack-of-a-warrant,-the-drug-bust-was-lost dept
Sixteen kilos of methamphetamine the Border Patrol found in an SUV was struck from the record by a federal judge because the agents didn't get the driver's consent to X-ray the vehicle.The CBP had two suspects exactly where it wanted them: detained by agents at a checkpoint. And the longer they were detained, the more nervous they got. Despite a search of the interior turning up nothing and the drug-sniffing dogs failing to alert, the CBP officers were pretty sure they had just captured two smugglers. So, the agents routed the vehicle through their backscatter X-ray scanner, skipping a step in the process.
Agent Buchanan testified that he did not rely on probable cause for the backscatter search, but rather on consent to search given by Defendants. He testified, “we always ask for consent for the backscatter . . . unless we’ve already found something in the vehicle.” He testified that he typically has another agent get consent to search the vehicle with the backscatter. Agent Buchanan was unable to identify the agent he asked to get consent from the Defendants and was unable to confirm that such consent was requested.So, Buchanan was unable to come up with any evidence or probable cause, but decided to perform the backscatter anyway, despite his doing so being completely contradicted by his portrayal of the CBP's standard m.o. This wasn't the only contradictory statement in the CBP's testimony.
Agent Valdez, who remained in the secondary waiting area with the Defendants, testified that he was present when Defendants gave consent to the backscatter search. However, he was unable to identify the agent who requested consent, how the request was phrased, and how the Defendants replied.Valdez, despite being "present," couldn't actually say whether the defendants had given consent (or who to), but went ahead and told the court that the two men had consented.
The backscatter device -- an additional search that required consent or a warrant -- uncovered 14 wrapped packages of meth, 16 kilograms in all. From that Fourth Amendment-skirting search, the CBP compiled its criminal complaint. Now, all of that narrative is nearly useless, thanks to these officers' actions.
The court, on its way to dismissing as evidence the 16 kilos of meth obtained that day, points out the government's contradictory statements, as well as its inability to find anyone to corroborate the multiple claims that permission for the search had been granted.
Defendants argue that Border Patrol agents did not request their consent to search the vehicle with a backscatter. Agent Buchanan testified that he asked another Border Patrol agent to obtain that consent, but he was unable to identify the agent and was unable to confirm that the agent requested consent. Although Agent Valdez testified that he was present when Defendants gave consent for the backscatter search, he was unable to recall which agent requested consent and what was said by the agent and the Defendants. More importantly, the Government failed to identify and to offer the testimony of the agent who purportedly sought and obtained the consent.And away goes 16 kilos of evidence, along with the bust itself, most likely. Kind of hard to prove the defendants were smuggling drugs when you can't introduce the smuggled drugs in court. Everyone at this particular CBP checkpoint apparently felt someone else would handle the consent issue. And even if the agents had been rebuffed, it's not as though the detainees were free to go. A warrant could have been acquired, most likely with minimal effort.
This isn't a huge bust nor would it have put a significant dent in a drug lord's operation. The CBP only had a couple of guys who had muled themselves out for a few hundred dollars. That, in and of itself, is just one of the problems with this nation's drug war. Thousands of tiny arrests like these happen every day and the "problem" isn't anywhere closer to being "solved."
The other thing this incident is symptomatic of is our nation's law enforcement agencies' extremely casual relationship with the Fourth Amendment. Time after time, we see the government (national and local) doing everything it can to avoid obtaining warrants -- whether it's their tendency to ask dogs for "permission" to perform warrantless searches or officers themselves using everything from imperceptible whiffs of drug odors to declaring every sign of nervousness as tantamount to a full confession. "Probable cause" is a low bar, but law enforcement agencies seem willing to sidestep it with alarming regularity. The CBP had a car full of drugs and two suspects nailed, but it showed that its "respect" for the Fourth Amendment was just a formality. Now, it has nothing more than two men suspected of smuggling the same drugs that can't be used against them in a court of law.