I just finished up a 3-week speaking tour last week, during which I spent quite a bit of time in Texas. En route, I passed through two United States Border Patrol checkpoints with varying results. First I passed through the I-10 eastbound checkpoint near El Paso, in the middle of the night with a companion, and then on the way back I passed through the I-10 westbound checkpoint somewhere between El Paso and Las Cruces, this time alone and in daylight.

That up there at the top is what they look like. You are routed off a main thoroughfare into a checkpoint. Border Patrol agents—make no mistake, these are law enforcement officers—will either question you or wave you through. They are supposed to have a random way of selecting cars to stop, but some evidence suggests that they may not always adhere to that.

As far as I am aware (I am not a lawyer), they are legally entitled only to ask your citizenship. Often they will also ask you where you are going or if there is anyone else in the vehicle and possibly even let a so-called drug-sniffing dog sniff your vehicle.

As it happened, my friend Robert and I were driving through the checkpoint after dark on an all-night jaunt from Tucson, Arizona to Austin, Texas. I was happy that I was not alone, and I got my phone ready to record if need be. I didn’t point it at the Border Patrol agent right off the bat so as not to incite antagonism and unnecessary hassle (we were on a tight schedule as I was supposed to meet someone at 8 am in Austin), and it turned out I didn’t need to as we were out of there pretty quick.

However, the agent harassing us at the stop did try to search us without cause.

How did that happen, you might ask? We are often socialized as human beings to do things for social purposes that are against our own interests. We may talk too much in order to fill awkward silences. We may automatically say yes to things without first asking or resisting, so as to seem amiable and cooperative. And so on.

These social habits are things that are exploited at Border Patrol checkpoints.

One of the ways Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement officers exploit this is by asking our permission to do things that they are not otherwise legally entitled to do. For the most part, people acquiesce. That’s how there have been hundreds of thousands of warrantless stops and frisks around the country year after year.

At this particular Border Patrol checkpoint, after we answered the required citizenship question stating that we are both United States citizens, the agent requested that we roll down a back window on his side of the vehicle. It didn’t take much consultation for us to decline. We asked the reason for the request, and the agent said he wanted to check if there were other people in the back. This sounded like a search to me.

Robert, who was driving and on the agent’s side of the vehicle, looked over at me as it was my rental car. I said I wasn’t comfortable with that, and Robert conveyed our non-consent to the agent. It was at this point that I was ready to start recording, but it turned out it was unnecessary. The agent immediately backed down, said he could see through the window, and gave us the free to go schtick.

If he could see through the window, then why was he asking us to unroll it? I believe that was the first step along the way to either coaxing us into permitting a search or finding some fake probable cause to conduct a nonconsensual search. The request to roll down the window was just the camel sticking its nose under the tent, if not for these reasons, then to further the goal of socializing the American public to be compliant with and forfeit our rights to law enforcement.

No good comes of this for liberty lovers.

I encourage you to make a habit of practicing two words: Why? and No. You may feel like you have to comply with law enforcement at some point, based on overt or indirect threats, your lack of confidence in knowing your legal rights, etc. But at the very least, I hope we all ask why and refuse at least once. For the most part, law enforcement will not go from zero to arrest without any notice (that’s not to say that it can’t happen, but it’s uncommon).

If you decline, you will usually have a chance to cave later. But if you start with Why?, you have a chance to gather information that will help you get to your No. And if you start with No, even if you later change your tune to Yes, you may have at least forced them to behave in a way that later you can use when challenging a regrettable action you felt intimidated or coerced into taking against your own best interests.

I’d had a lot of experience with Border Patrol checkpoints, spy towers, and even personal and dangerous encounters with USBP agents when I was living in the Constitution-free zone of Southern Arizona. That was a huge factor in my move to Southern Montana, outside of the Constitution-free zone. Yet even this time, my heart was racing as we drove through the checkpoint and for some time after. We had done nothing wrong, but I was anxious. We had merely asserted out Constitutional rights, and yet I felt my body physically responding involuntarily with fight-or-flight type symptoms.

(On my way back, traveling alone and a single woman vs. a predominantly male Border Patrol force, I purposely stopped for the night before I reached the checkpoint as a safety precaution so that I could travel through in the daylight. As it turned out, I was waved through with no stop.)

It is appalling that I should be made to feel this way on a simple state-to-state drive in my own country. It is even more appalling how many people consider themselves libertarian even though they support these police state incarnations in the name of arbitrary exclusion.

But over the years, each time I have questioned Why? and answered No, I have become more confident in standing up for myself—for my physical autonomy, for my rights and liberty, and for my very dignity as a human being. And that also leaves an emotional imprint—a feeling of pride and confidence that for me sticks around much longer than the racing heart and sweaty palms.


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