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The State

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Searches of Vehicles at Borders

In restoring a drug smuggler's conviction, justices rule that inspections at points of entry are constitutional, regardless of their cause.

March 31, 2004|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Federal agents may stop cars and trucks that have crossed the U.S. border and pull them aside to disassemble their gas tanks and fuel lines, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, even if there is no reason to believe that the vehicles are carrying drugs or other illegal items.

The ruling restores the full authority of federal agents working at ports of entry in Southern California to thoroughly inspect vehicles randomly or on the basis of a hunch.

The decision is a victory for the government in both the war on drugs and the war on terrorism.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said agents needed to have some reason for suspicion before they disassembled a car.

The 9th Circuit decision overturned the drug conviction of Manuel Flores-Montano, who was found to have 81 pounds of marijuana hidden in his fuel tank when he crossed the border at San Diego's Otay Mesa. Tuesday's ruling restored the conviction.

In an exasperated tone, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist spoke for a unanimous court in saying that agents are free to search travelers and vehicles entering the United States.

"Time and again, we have stated that searches made at the border, pursuant to the long-standing right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border," he said.

The 4th Amendment forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government. This rule has been interpreted to mean that police officers may not stop motorists on the highway unless they have some reason to suspect wrongdoing, such as erratic driving.

But Rehnquist stressed that this 4th Amendment protection does not apply to searches at or near the border.

Tuesday's decision may prove to be a nuisance for some travelers. Disassembling a gas tank, checking it and reassembling it usually takes an hour or more, the court said.

But drug smugglers often try to hide illegal narcotics in the internal parts of a vehicle, and agents are entitled to look there to find them, the chief justice said.

The 9th Circuit judges also worried that some cars might be damaged during inspections or might be reassembled improperly, creating a danger to the motorist.

Rehnquist also dismissed that concern.

The lawyers in the case "cite not a single accident involving the vehicle or motorist in the many thousands of gas tanks disassemblies that have occurred at the border," he said in U.S. vs. Flores-Montano.

"A gas tank search involves a brief procedure that can be reversed without damaging the safety or operation of the vehicle. If damage to the vehicle were to occur, the motorist might be entitled to recovery," he concluded.

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