12/5/2013Texas: Suspicionless Roadblock Case Heads To Appeals Court
Combat veteran challenges suspicionless checkpoints before a federal court of appeals.
An Air Force major on Tuesday asked the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals to reinstate his lawsuit against Border Patrol agents who stopped and detained him without any reason to suspect him of wrong-doing. Richard Rynearson was driving on Highway 90 in Uvalde, Texas on March 18, 2010 when he came upon the Border Patrol roadblock 67 miles from the border with Mexico. The entire encounter was recorded on video.
"Is this your vehicle, sir?" asked Border Patrol Agent Justin K. Lands.
"It is," Rynearson replied.
"Can you roll down your window, is that as far it will go?" Lands asked.
"No, it can go down more," Rynearson said while rolling it down more.
After the 13-second exchange, Lands ordered Rynearson to pull over into the secondary screening area. Once there, the major was told to exit his vehicle. He refused to do so without being given cause. He displayed his military ID, his passport and his driver's license to establish his citizenship and identity.
"Doing the things you're doing, I don't believe that you're being a United States citizen," Lands explained. "You're [not] rolling down your window, you won't roll it down."
After Border Patrol Captain Raul Perez established Rynearson was a citizen more than fifteen minutes into the stop, he asked for information on Rynearson's commanding officer, then left the major waiting while he called Laughlin Air Force Base to speak with Rynearson's boss. In total he was kept for thirty-four minutes.
After a video of the incident was posted on YouTube (view video), the chief Border Patrol Agent for Del Rio, Robert L. Harris, wrote a three-page letter to Lt. Colonel Richart L. Nesmith to complain about Major Rynearson and his refusal to roll down his window.
"We believe MAJ Rynearson's conduct is unbecoming of such a high-ranking officer in the United states Air Force," Agent Harris wrote.
The Border Patrol insists that the agents' actions were entirely appropriate and that no reasonable suspicion is needed to detain a motorist at a secondary inspection. A federal district court judge sided with the agency and refused to allow Rynearson's attorney access to internal reports, documents and witnesses who could have shed light on the truth of the agents' claims. On September 30, a US District Judge threw out the lawsuit on the grounds that not rolling down a window far enough can constitute evidence of criminal activity.
"Although the thirty-four minute stop of Rynearson was longer than some stops that occur at checkpoints, the length of the detention did not exceed a constitutionally permissible time," Judge Alia Moses ruled. "Rynearson's own behavior caused the delays. Agent Lands, as a result of Rynearson's abnormal behavior, developed reasonable suspicion that Rynearson was involved in some criminal activity."
The Border Patrol agents say they are just doing their duty and upholding the Constitution. In 2003, Rynearson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with combat "V" for valor.
"The actions of Captain Rynearson contributed directly to the successful capture of the Al Faw petroleum pipeline intact, paved the way for the American-led ground war and ultimately saved thousands of coalition lives," the Air Force citation reads. "The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Captain Rynearson reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."