April 20, 2003 – The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a District Court order that declared unconstitutional the use of immigration checkpoints at V.I. airports to screen passengers boarding planes for other U.S. destinations including the mainland and Puerto Rico.
The appellate court concluded that the federal government's "compelling interest" in detecting illegal immigrants in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, mainland terrorist attacks outweighs the "minimal intrusion on the liberty interests of travelers."
The ruling by the Philadelphia-based appeals court overturned District Judge Thomas K. Moore's decision in the case of Camille Pollard.
Pollard, a Guyanese citizen, falsely portrayed herself as a native New Yorker at a checkpoint at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas. Pollard later confessed her deception, but Moore said her confession must be suppressed because it was gained at the cost of her Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights. See "Appeal arguments heard in INS checkpoint case".)
In his order issued last June, Moore stated that the government was burdened with "establishing the constitutionality of the checkpoint itself." He held that requiring people traveling out of the Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland to show proof of citizenship was in conflict with the Fourth Amendment guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Therefore, Moore stated, "since the detention [of Pollard] was clearly a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, any statement made by the defendant in the wake of the unconstitutional seizure will be suppressed."
Moore contrasted the checkpoint procedure with the free movement of people from state to state within the United States. "A departure checkpoint such as the one established at the Cyril E. King Airport, which requires every passenger to stop and be examined, is not employed in Hawaii, Alaska or any other state in the Union," he said.
Nor, Moore added, are passengers flying from Puerto Rico or the U.S. mainland to the Virgin Islands subject to "such a cattle chute departure control checkpoint." In fact, he wrote, "There is absolutely no check by INS [the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service] of passengers flying from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands."
At a hearing held in April 2002, Pollard's public defender, Douglas Beevers, argued that the immigration control unique to the Virgin Islands existed because most of the population was black. "It's not handled the same way in any of the offshore territories of the United States that do not have a majority black population, "Beevers said.
Moore wrote that "the systematic, unnecessary, ineffective, intrusive and oppressive immigration departure control point at the Cyril E. King Airport … is not compatible with the Fourth Amendment."
But the three-judge appellate court panel stated: "Many of the illegal aliens who enter the Virgin Islands intend to travel to the U.S. mainland and … the checkpoint would deter many of these illegal aliens from entering the Virgin Islands."
Further, the circuit court held that "requiring persons traveling from the Virgin Islands to pass through the checkpoint at the airport is undoubtedly a rational means of furthering the interest in interdicting aliens."
Moore in his trial court ruling had taken the view that any individuals who had entered the Virgin Islands had already had to prove their right to enter the United States, since the Virgin Islands is a U.S. territory. He also said that out of 484,444 air passengers "detained" at the checkpoint in 2001, only 89 people were apprehended and charged with violation of U.S. immigration laws.
The 3rd Circuit Court, noting the events of Sept. 11 in overturning Moore's decision, stated: "When the government's compelling interest in interdicting aliens — an interest undoubtedly addressed by the checkpoint — is measured against the checkpoint's minimal intrusion on the liberty interests of travelers, the checkpoint comfortably squares with the Fourth Amendment."
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