Thursday, October 23, 2008

AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION FREE ZONE


ACLU - Normally under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the American people are not generally subject to random and arbitrary stops and searches. The border, however, has always been an exception. There, the longstanding view is that the normal rules do not apply. For example the authorities do not need a warrant or probable cause to conduct a "routine search."

But what is "the border"? According to the government, it is a 100-mile wide strip that wraps around the "external boundary" of the United States. As a result of this claimed authority, individuals who are far away from the border, American citizens traveling from one place in America to another, are being stopped and harassed in ways that our Constitution does not permit.

Border Patrol has been setting up checkpoints inland - on highways in states such as California, Texas and Arizona, and at ferry terminals in Washington State. Typically, the agents ask drivers and passengers about their citizenship. Unfortunately, our courts so far have permitted these kinds of checkpoints - legally speaking, they are "administrative" stops that are permitted only for the specific purpose of protecting the nation's borders. They cannot become general drug-search or other law enforcement efforts.

However, these stops by Border Patrol agents are not remaining confined to that border security purpose. On the roads of California and elsewhere in the nation - places far removed from the actual border - agents are stopping, interrogating, and searching Americans on an everyday basis with absolutely no suspicion of wrongdoing.

The bottom line is that the extraordinary authorities that the government possesses at the border are spilling into regular American streets.

Many Americans and Washington policymakers believe that this is a problem confined to the San Diego-Tijuana border or the dusty sands of Arizona or Texas, but these powers stretch far inland across the United States.

To calculate what proportion of the U.S. population is affected by these powers, the ACLU created a map and spreadsheet showing the population and population centers that lie within 100 miles of any "external boundary" of the United States. What we found is that fully two thirds of the United States' population lives within this Constitution-free or Constitution-lite Zone. That's 197.4 million people who live within 100 miles of the US land and coastal borders. Nine of the top 10 largest metropolitan areas as determined by the 2000 census, fall within the Constitution-free Zone. Some states are considered to lie completely within the zone: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

If the current generation of Americans does not challenge this creeping (and sometimes galloping) expansion of federal powers over the individual through the rationale of "border protection," we are not doing our part to keep alive the rights and freedoms that we inherited, and will soon find that we have lost some or all of their right to go about their business, and travel around inside their own country, without interference from the authorities.

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