LAREDO — A long-running feud between a South Texas rancher and the Border Patrol has escalated into a civil lawsuit after the rancher confiscated a surveillance camera he found on his property.
The suit filed by Ricardo D. Palacios, a lawyer who lives on a ranch near Encinal, north of Laredo, against federal agents and a Texas Ranger raises questions about how much leeway law enforcement officials have to enter private property near the border.
Congress has given the Homeland Security Department permission to patrol private property within 25 miles of the border without a warrant, but experts say the courts have never defined how much authority agents have on private land. Federal agents cannot enter “dwellings” without a court order.
If a judge finds that his property is outside the 25-mile zone, as Palacios has asked, the lawsuit might not resolve those questions.
Palacios’ dispute with the Border Patrol dates to at least 2010, when, the suit filed in November alleges, one of his sons was “body-slammed” by agents at an immigration checkpoint several miles south of Encinal. The son was detained for about 90 minutes, then released, according to the suit.
Several hours later, about 3 a.m., a standoff developed between Palacios and his sons, who also live on the property, and a group of agents gathered at the ranch gates. A Border Patrol supervisor eventually defused the situation, but Palacios alleges that he frequently finds agents on his property.
After one such incident, Palacios confiscated “a 1/2-inch diameter, white fiberglass spike about 2½ feet long with a round, 3-inch red reflector affixed at the top” that he found embedded in the ground, according to the suit.
Border Patrol agents apparently didn’t protest when Palacios took the spike — the suit says he still has it — but when he found a surveillance camera attached to a mesquite tree near his house and took it down, agents with Customs and Border Protection and the Texas Rangers started calling him. The suit says a Ranger eventually threatened to arrest Palacios if he didn’t return the camera.
The suit says Palacios believes that CBP agents and Rangers cooperated to place the camera on his property, “in violation of (his) property and constitutional rights.”
Palacios has asked a federal judge in Laredo to declare his property outside the 25-mile zone in which the Border Patrol can go on his land. He’s also asking for $500,000 in damages for mental and emotional distress and for unspecified punitive damages.
Officials with the Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Public Safety said they couldn’t comment on the pending litigation. The Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing Texas Ranger Mario Martinez, filed a motion to dismiss the suit, saying Martinez was acting in his capacity as a law enforcement officer and has qualified immunity.
Palacios referred questions to his attorney, Raul Casso, who said neither the state nor the federal government had authority to be on Palacios’ property and shouldn’t have been installing surveillance devices without a judge’s order.
“The government is peeking around where it’s not supposed to without any judicial oversight,” he said.
Casso rejected the state’s position that Martinez was acting within his rights as a law enforcement officer.
“It’s not us against the good guys,” Casso said. “We’re on the side of the law. We’re enforcing the Constitution and the laws that emanate from it. The government and its agencies need to respect private property and the individuals whose property it is.”
The Border Patrol has interpreted the law as giving it latitude to operate on private property, said Efrén Olivares, the racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. However, the courts haven’t defined “patrolling,” and it’s not clear if the law allows Border Patrol agents to place sensors or cameras on private land, Olivares said. Last year, the organization operating the National Butterfly Center in Hidalgo County after the center’s executive director found CBP contractors clearing brush on private property.
The camera Palacios found on his property appears to be part of Operation Drawbridge, a multimillion-dollar effort by DPS that began in 2012 to build a “virtual wall” along the border. The agency has purchased 4,359 cameras, similar to wildlife cameras popular with ranchers but capable of connecting to cellphone towers, for about $300 a piece and has installed them across South Texas, according to DPS.
The cameras can be monitored by the state’s Border Security Operations Center in Austin, the six Joint Operations Intelligence Centers DPS has along the border and CBP officials. According to a DPS presentation to Congress last year, the images captured by the cameras can also be viewed by local law enforcement officers and by ranchers who have access through a password-protected webpage.
State troopers might be able to enter private property within the 25 miles and install a Border Patrol camera if they’re working with Homeland Security, Olivares said. But the law doesn’t allow state or local law enforcement to go on private property without a warrant, even within the 25-mile zone granted to the Homeland Security Department, nor does it allow state or local law enforcement agencies to place cameras on private property.
“The statute grants that authority to DHS agents or employees, not any other state agency or county agency or city police department,” Olivares said. “It doesn’t mean that within 25 miles, any agency, state, local, can enter private land.”
The state may have found a way around that. Testifying before Congress last year, DPS Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers: “The state of Texas has provided Border Patrol agents more than 4,000 low-cost, high-capability cameras to detect smuggling activity along the border.”
“If they are giving it to the Border Patrol, they’re free to do it, and now it’s no longer the property of DPS,” Olivares said, meaning the Border Patrol could then put the cameras on private property within the 25-mile zone.
However, it would be difficult for the state to bring criminal charges against Palacios, as Martinez, the Ranger, allegedly threatened.
“If that’s what they are doing, it is then Border Patrol’s property,” Olivares said of the camera.
If a judge finds that Palacios’ property isn’t within 25 miles of the Rio Grande, the issue of whether the Border Patrol has access to his property is likely rendered moot. The zone tracks the loops and bends of the river, but Palacios’ lawyers say the closest the border comes to his ranch is more than 27 miles from his property line.
“We hear about this happening to people, but it’s sort of isolated incidents. … And it doesn’t necessarily rise to a lawsuit,” added Olivares, who’s based in the Rio Grande Valley. “But it’s still abuse of authority by CBP agents, so I’m glad there’s a lawsuit taking this on, because there’s a problem of Border Patrol and CBP agents doing more than the law allows them to do, and they trespass on private property.”
But Palacios’ suit points to bigger problems with increased surveillance across the border, said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for border and immigration issues at the American Civil Liberties Union. Drones, surveillance blimps, license plate scanners and facial recognition technology are all potential invasions of privacy, he said. As evidence, he pointed to the 2016 arrest by Border Patrol of a woman and her young son at a baseball game in La Joya after DPS cameras recorded them going into the bushes to relieve themselves.
“The question really becomes what sort of surveillance is really looming over every border resident in their daily lives?” he asked.