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Random checkpoint on Maine highway leads to arrest of Haitian fugitive

Affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union have filed two lawsuits in pursuit of more information regarding immigration law enforcement in the area.
by Jessica Spitz /

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A random U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint set up on a Maine highway this week resulted in the arrest of a fugitive Haitian immigrant who had been ordered deported over a decade ago, officials said Friday.

The checkpoint was marked by cones blocking an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Penobscot County, forcing anyone in the southbound lanes between the towns of Howland and Lincoln, about 72 miles from the Canadian border, to stop and speak with agents, said Steve Sapp, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. The 11-hour checkpoint led to the Haitian man’s arrest, a formal warning issued to a lawful resident who was not carrying required paperwork, and 10 drug seizures, he said.

Sapp said drivers who pass through such checkpoints are subject to questions about residency and citizenship. A dog is present to detect concealed humans or drugs, and agents may also look through the windows of the car. If someone does not comply with questioning, the driver is moved to the side of the road for further questions, he said.

When asked why a decision was made to install a checkpoint at this location, Sapp referred to a Customs and Border Protection statement that said, "Due to operational security, checkpoint details are not something that we would publicly disclose."

Sapp told NBC News on Friday that the Haitian man, who was unidentified, admitted that he was not a United States citizen and presented a Florida’s driver’s license for identification. The agents were then able to biometrically identify the man through fingerprints and discovered his deportation order and his criminal record, which included arrests on charges of cocaine possession, possession of a concealed firearm and resisting an officer, Sapp said.

The man was then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and will be deported, Sapp said. ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Controversy has followed these types of checkpoints in Maine and around the country. Emma Bond, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, told NBC News that several constitutional rights are implicated in these scenarios, including the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

Additionally, Bond said, Customs and Border Protection has consistently refused to release more information about these checkpoints, specifically about ones that take place at bus stops throughout the state.

The Maine ACLU has filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act following the refusal of the border agency and the Department of Homeland Security to release details about random immigrant checkpoints. The Maine ACLU has also partnered with its New Hampshire and Vermont affiliates to sue the border agency, Homeland Security and the immigration agency for more information about the enforcement of immigration law in the Northeast.

Bond also argued that the Supreme Court decision that the border agency most frequently cites as affirming its authority to conduct these searches, United States v. Martinez-Fuerte — which Sapp also pointed to in an email to NBC News — is not so clear.

“We don’t have the statistics or specific info from CBP, that is a concern,” Bond said. “The case that CBP references involves a regularized, fixed and permanent checkpoint, whereas this was orange cones on the highway. So this random checkpoint poses all the risk of bias and subjective enforcement.”

The government responded to the ACLU’s lawsuit last week, and Bond said that ACLU and government attorneys will meet soon to discuss whether the records will be released or if legal proceedings will begin.

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