Homeland Security Assuming Broad Powers, Turning Vast Swaths of U.S. into "Constitution-Free Zone"
By Barry Steinhardt, Director, ACLU Technology & Liberty Program
October 22, 2008
You’re driving along a remote, dusty road, when suddenly you come upon a border patrol checkpoint. There, agents demand to see your identity papers, and search your car. You are taken by surprise, because you know you haven’t wandered across the Texas-Mexico border. In fact, you’re quite sure of that, because you’re driving through rural Wisconsin countryside west of Green Bay. Even the Canadian border is more than 90 miles away.
This scene is not as far-fetched as you might want to believe. The government is turning vast swaths of our country into a "Constitution-Free Zone" in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is allowed to exercise extraordinary authority that would not normally be permitted under the Constitution. The government says that "the border" — where there is a longstanding view that the Constitution does not fully apply — actually stretches 100 miles inland from the nation’s "external boundary." And increasingly, we are seeing DHS vigorously utilize that authority.
Today we held a press conference at the National Press Club here in D.C. to try to draw attention to this problem — and the fact that, as we showed, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population live within this "Constitution-Free Zone." That’s 197.4 million people.
We calculated this using the most recent, 2007 numbers from the U.S. Census, and released a map showing the cities and states that are enveloped by this zone. It includes some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country: New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. States that are completely within this Constitution-Free Zone include Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. When you say "border," they think "all of New England."
CBP has been setting up checkpoints far inland— on highways in states such as California, Texas and Arizona, and at ferry terminalsin Washington State. Typically, the agents ask drivers and passengers about their citizenship. People are also reporting that even after they provide passports or state driver’s licenses, CBP continues to interrogate them and try to pressure them into permitting a search.