(GREAT FALLS) Two U.S. citizens were stopped and questioned by a Border Patrol agent early Wednesday morning for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Havre.
Ana Suda – who was born in Texas and now lives in Havre – stopped with a friend at a Town Pump store to buy milk and eggs.
They were speaking Spanish when a Border Patrol agent asked them for their documents.
Suda said she paid for her items, gave the agent her identification, and she started recording video of the incident in the parking lot.
When Suda asked why he wanted to see their identification, the agent said, "Ma’am, the reason I asked you for your ID is because I came in here and saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here."
Suda says they are still in shock that this happened.
Suda told MTN News: "My family was asking me, because my family is still in Texas, and they were asking me, how is Montana about this? I said I have never had a problem before. I say Montana is perfect. I love the people here, the people are so nice. It is nicer than other states. I can not believe this happened."
Suda said that the officer let them leave after about 35 minutes.
Suda told KRTV that even her husband, a former probation officer with the Montana Department of Correction who is in law enforcement, is questioning what happened: “He thinks it is very bad what this guy was doing because he does not have the right to do it.”
The officer identified himself as Agent O’Neal in the video, and said that his actions were not racially-motivated.
U.S. Customs & Border Protection sent the following statement to MTN News: “Although most Border Patrol work is conducted in the immediate border area, agents have broad law enforcement authorities and are not limited to a specific geography within the United States. They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence.”
The Customs & Border Protection website provides the following information:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Border Patrol is responsible for securing the U.S. border between the ports of entry. To do this, they use a layered approach that includes patrolling the border itself, (including the use of electronic surveillance devices), patrolling nearby areas and neighborhoods where illegal immigrants can quickly fade into the general population, and conducting checkpoints – both stationary and temporary.
The authority for this is based on the Immigration and Nationality Act 287(a)(3) and copied in 8 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 287 (a)(3), which states that Immigration Officers, without a warrant, may "within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States…board and search for aliens in any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railcar, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle. 8 CFR 287 (a)(1) defines reasonable distance as 100 air miles from the border.
Two key court decisions affirm the authority of the Border patrol to operate checkpoints and to question occupants of vehicles about their citizenship, request document proof of immigration status, and make quick observations of what is in plain view in the interior of the vehicle.
Border Patrol checkpoint case law has provided the basis for numerous other checkpoints beneficial to the public, such as DUI checkpoints, driver’s license/proof of registration checkpoints, etc.
Border Patrol checkpoints do not give Border Patrol Agents carte blanche to automatically search persons and their vehicles, other then in the manner described above. In order to conduct a legal search under the Fourth Amendment, the agents must develop particularly probable cause to conduct a lawful search. Probable cause can be developed from agent observations, records checks, non-intrusive canine sniffs and other established means. Motorist’s may consent to a search, but are not required to do so.
We will update you if we get more information.