Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in another case involving a driver claiming Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. The Christian Science Monitor says the issue is whether agents manning a U.S. border station may disasseme a gas tank even when they do not have reasonable suspicion to believe it contains contraband. The federal government believes the ability to conduct suspicionless searches deters would-be smugglers. Civil libertarians say such tactics could lead to increasingly intrusive searches at border crossings and airports. “This is the functional equivalent of a strip search or a body cavity search for a car,” says law Prof. Tracy Maclin of Boston University.
The Supreme Court has ruled that border officials may conduct suspicionless searches of the luggage of arriving passengers, but may not conduct a strip search or body cavity search without reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Today’s case involves Manuel Flores-Montano, who drove his station wagon from Mexico into the Otay Mesa border station in southern California. A Customs inspector saw suspicious signs, and a narcotics detecting dog signaled the presence of drugs in the car. A mechanic removed the fuel tank and discovered 37 kilograms of marijuana. Flores-Montano maintains that the removal of a gas tank without reasonable suspicion went beyond the kind of acceptable “routine” border search.