Drug arrests during N.H. border checkpoints challenged in court

  • Police search cars on Interstate 93 in Woodstock earlier this year. The ACLU’s New Hampshire chapter has filed a motion on behalf of 18 people who were arrested. Monitor file

Associated Press
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking a court to suppress evidence against 18 people who were charged with drug possession after being stopped and searched by customs and border protection agents last summer in northern New Hampshire.

The ACLU’s New Hampshire chapter has filed a motion on behalf of 18 people who were arrested on Interstate 93 in Woodstock in August and September, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped hundreds of cars about 90 miles from the Canadian border. Thirty-three people were detained for immigration-related offenses, while 44 were charged with drug possession, mostly small amounts of marijuana, by either Woodstock Police or state police.

In its motion, the ACLU argues that New Hampshire’s Constitution is more protective of privacy than the U.S. Constitution, and that evidence from the federal searches can’t be used in state prosecutions if it was gathered in a way that violates the state constitution.

“The New Hampshire Constitution does not allow law enforcement to engage in a fishing expedition for criminal activity, yet this is precisely what happened here,” said Buzz Scherr, co-counsel on the case and a University of New Hampshire law professor. “The government used these checkpoints to invade the privacy of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of individuals legally traveling through the White Mountains. Given this significant intrusion, these checkpoints can only be described as the imposition of a police state.”

New Hampshire courts have held that without a warrant, authorities have to have a reasonable suspicion to use a dog to sniff for contraband, but after the August checkpoint, Woodstock police Chief Ryan Oleson told the New Hampshire Union Leader that federal authorities had “a lot more leeway.” He did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Border protection officials have the authority to set up checkpoints within 100 miles of any U.S. “external boundary.” Officials have said they were regularly conducted in New Hampshire, though the pair of checkpoints this year were the first since 2012.

The motion was filed Friday in Plymouth District Court. A hearing is set for Jan. 11.