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Warrantless Stop OK in Near-Border Search: 5th Cir.

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on August 22, 2013 2:51 PM

Warrantless stops can often be close cases to affirm or deny under Fourth Amendment scrutiny, and the Fifth Circuit's decision in U.S. v. Garza was no exception.

The Garza court considered the 2012 stop and arrest of Jose Eleazar Garza, who was stopped by a Border Patrol agent on the basis of a confidential informant's (CI) tip as well as suspicious elements around his truck.

How did the court come to uphold the stop?

Garza Stopped by Border Patrol

A warrantless stop of Garza's vehicle, a Terry stop by most accounts, occurred at a gas station in a tiny border town called Fronton, Texas, only 5 miles from the Rio Grande and the U.S.-Mexico border.

The officer had noticed Garza's truck matched a description given over dispatch. When Garza tried to leave the gas station, the officer stopped his vehicle, leading to a consented search which revealed undocumented aliens in the truck's flatbed.

Garza copped a plea to trafficking aliens for financial gain, but he reserved the right to appeal his motion to suppress the search of his vehicle that resulted from the officer's Terry stop.

Reasonable Suspicion, Tejas Style

Since part of the information that lead to Garza's arrest was based on a CI, you would expect that the Fifth Circuit would have been all over that issue. Instead, they ignored it entirely, claiming that under Brignoni-Ponce factors, the officer had enough information to support an inference of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

In border cases, like in all Terry cases, there must be "specific articulable facts" that form the basis for reasonable suspicion, not just a hunch.

Although the Brignoni-Ponce case mentions eight factors, the Garza court notes that in considering the totality of circumstances of a near-border stop, it need only find a couple of the factors weighing in favor of the stop, not all.

The Fifth Circuit placed considerable importance on these factors:

  1. The characteristics of the area. Fronton was known to have a high frequency of illegal drug and human trafficking activity.
  2. Agent experience. The border agent had more than two years' experience in the Fronton area and knew the kind of traffic that passed through.
  3. Proximity to the border. The gas station was only 5 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border; citing case precedent, the Fifth Circuit explained that "Anything less than 50 miles ... implicates the proximity factor."
  4. The vehicle's appearance. Plywood boards are often used to hide illegal cargo and can be a sign of possible trafficking.
  5. The driver's appearance. When the agent approached in his vehicle, Garza nervously finished pumping his gas and quickly moved into his vehicle, giving the agent reason to suspect his "nervous, evasive behavior."

Taken together, without mention of the CI's tip, the Garza court established there was reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop.

Bottom Line

Reasonable suspicion is a low bar and the government's interests in patrolling the areas around the border are weighty, so close cases like Garza's often fall on the side of the government.

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