2018 Stories of the Year: Border checkpoint in N.H. challenged in court 

  • A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks a car on Interstate 93 on Sept. 28, 2017 south of Lincoln. In May, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU that argued evidence used to arrest 18 people on drug charges at the checkpoint was obtained unconstitutionally. Geoff Forester / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 12/26/2018 3:31:22 PM

It seemed to come out of nowhere, without notice or fanfare.

One weekend in August 2017, southbound motorists on Interstate 93 in Woodstock were treated to an unusual experience: a blockade, manned by federal border patrol agents, 90 miles south of the Canadian border.

One by one, drivers were stopped by the agents and asked to confirm their citizenship. Drug-sniffing dogs circled the cars, keeping alert to illegal contraband and human trafficking. For most, the process lasted less than 60 seconds. For some, it resulted in arrest and deportation.

The checkpoint, operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in conjunction with the Woodstock Police Department, wasn’t actually new. CBP had previously carried out annual stops at the same spot for decades.

But the agency hadn’t carried out a stop since 2012, and by the time they resumed in 2017, the country was bitterly divided over immigration and border security. The three-day August stop instantly became a lightning rod, drawing responses that only got more heated after the local police department announced it had made a string of arrests at the checkpoint.

In all, 32 U.S citizens were arrested at the checkpoint during the first stop – 18 for drug related charges – despite the overarching purpose of immigration enforcement.

In 2018, the legality of those checkpoints and the arrests was challenged in court.

Here’s how it worked: Though the cars were stopped for citizenship checks, and though the canines were employed to detect human trafficking, the dogs would still “alert” at cars that contained drugs, the majority of it marijuana. Federal agents would then ask those driver to pull off the road and detain them until a Lincoln police officer could be called in to make the arrest. At that point, depending on the nature of the offense, the defendant would be arraigned in circuit court or superior court.

The checkpoints continued; CBP hosted one more in 2017 and six more in 2018, a significant escalation that reflected increased resources to the federal agency and renewed attention from the White House.

With the New Hampshire checkpoints came scattered detentions of undocumented immigrants. And border patrol representatives championed the stops as key means to cut off undocumented travelers heading from Canada to Boston, and intercept drugs in the process.

But it was the arrests of American citizens on drug charges that drew the attention of civil libertarians.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the practice of conducting border checkpoints within 100 miles of the U.S. border, the method of using drug sniffing dogs on captive cars without obtaining permission is a much more a contentious area of law. That question became the linchpin of a sweeping legal challenge by the Americans for Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire against the arrests.

In a lawsuit in Plymouth District Court, the ACLU argued that the evidence used to substantiate the 18 arrests ran against the New Hampshire constitution and past state Supreme Court rulings, which have made the Granite State a stronger state for privacy law than many others. In May, the court ruled in favor of that argument, and soon all charges were dropped.

Over the year, the border checkpoints created a lot of heat, legally and politically, with Democratic U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster weighing in against them and Gov. Chris Sununu supporting them. But polling suggested that the controversy never seemed to register on the same level with the public; a 2017 University of New Hampshire poll found that 70 percent were in favor of the checkpoints, even if used for domestic drug arrests.

Either way, the checkpoints are likely staying, though the impact of the ACLU lawsuit has apparently taken its toll. The Woodstock police department no longer participates in the stops, breaking from decades of practice.

And at recent stops, agents made no detentions at all.

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