Phoenix – Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona are subjecting U.S. citizens to illegal searches, detentions and excessive force in many cases miles from the state's border with Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a complaint Wednesday.
The group is seeking a federal probe into what it calls "widespread and longstanding" constitutional abuses, and in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, the ACLU cites five cases in which it says citizens were wrongfully detained without probable cause, among numerous other violations.
The group wants an investigation into the individual complaints as well as a comprehensive review of Border Patrol policies.
DHS has declined comment on the complaint that comes two weeks after the federal government settled an ACLU lawsuit over similar allegations in Washington state.
While admitting no wrongdoing in that case, the Border Patrol agreed to retrain agents and share with advocacy groups records of every traffic stop its agents make in Washington's Olympic Peninsula along the northern border with Canada for 18 months, among other things.
The ACLU says the issue of constitutional violations by Border Patrol agents dates back decades and continues to be ignored by federal authorities.
"It has a huge impact on border communities, but it extends far into the interior," said ACLU attorney James Lyall. "Border Patrol claims broad authority anywhere within 100 miles of any external boundary."
Lyall said that covers two-thirds of the U.S. population.
"The potential for abuses is not constrained to just the border regions but really can impact the majority of Americans," he added, noting a formal lawsuit may follow the complaint.
The National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents, balked at the allegations as being widespread.
"People are going to make mistakes, but I think those are very few and far between," said Shawn Moran, the group's vice president.
He said the union has sought more transparency from DHS regarding complaints and assaults against agents, noting it would help the public better understand the dangers of the job.
"Transparency would really show that our agents do a good job, and of course we're always for more training," Moran said. "But we're not in favor of training that is just thrown on top of us to appease a special interest group."
ACLU's complaint also comes three weeks after the completion of a review by DHS's Office of Inspector General into allegations of excessive force by Border Patrol agents.
The report recommended improvements in training but contained little discussion of use-of-force policies and cited no specific wrongdoing by the agency.
The instances cited in Wednesday's complaint include a southern Arizona resident's allegations that Border Patrol agents illegally detained her without probable cause, claiming her vehicle matched the description of one used to smuggle drugs, and another in which a vacationing Oregon man was detained for four hours on the suspicion he had marijuana in his car.
"It was a rather traumatic experience," Bryan Barrow, of Baker City, Ore., said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The 50-year-old property manager said he was hiking in March in southeastern Arizona at Fort Bowie National Historic Site when he returned to his car to find a park ranger peering through the windows.
Border Patrol agents soon responded to the scene and searched his car, at one point threatening to use pepper spray on the man when he continued to question why he was being detained, Barrow said.
No drugs were found.
"I was basically forced to sit in the dirt, and there was 40 mph winds blowing sand and grit into my eyes," he said. "There was no probable cause whatsoever."
Barrow said part of his vacation included scouting out potential places to move in the Southwest.
"I have definitely decided I do not want to live anywhere in southern Arizona or southern New Mexico for that matter," he said. "Nowhere near the border."