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After it all happened, she said, “When the dog started barking, I knew there was something wrong.”

It was a beautiful day in October, and we had left San Diego in the early morning, trying to make good time to Phoenix for a wedding. The drive was uneventful. We stopped in Yuma for breakfast, and just before noon pulled up to the second Border Patrol stop along I–8. Halfway between Yuma and Gila Bend, our boring drive became a drama in the desert. The big net had caught a tiny fish.

I rolled my window partway down, and the Border Patrol agent put his hand up, signaling for us to stop.

I did. When I looked at my wife, he asked, “Is this vehicle registered to you?” I nodded, as several more agents surrounded our car. Right then, I realized what was happening. I was pointed toward and escorted to “secondary,” a pop-up canopy on the dirt shoulder of the road, where I put the car in park and turned off the motor. My wife and kids were ushered to a nearby bench. It was to become a new American experience, Homeland Security gone wild, and my introduction to the thriving economy revolving around Wellton, AZ.

As a couple of guards searched the car, and the dog sniffed and searched, the agent said, “Please empty your pockets on the table.” I dumped most of my stuff, wallet, coins, bills, and keys. I hesitated, and he approached me. “Here, this is all I have,” I said.

It was a small bud of pot, the size of a thimble, loose in a baggie. The dog could smell it in my pants pocket from ten feet beyond the passenger side of the car, with the windows rolled up, ten yards before I came to a stop, waiting to be waved through the checkpoint — or so it seemed. I also had a metal “cigarette” pipe that you can take a small hit of pot with. I slipped that to the agent as well, trying to keep my kids from seeing it.

We sat for a while as they ran a background check and found my record clean.

After searching the car, and finding nothing else, a guy led me toward my car. “We are in the State of Arizona, where possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia are each felonies,” he said. “Since you have no previous record, if you cooperate, we can cite you and send you on your way. About a month from now, you’ll have to appear in court in Wellton, Arizona, a town about 20 miles back, toward Yuma, on Highway 8. If you would rather not cooperate, we will arrest you, but your family is free to go. It’s your choice.”

So off I went to their trailer headquarters, where several other agents worked at computers entering data. Spartan desks were set up for processing the lawbreakers.

After being asked where I got it from — “A friend with a medical marijuana card” — and how much I paid — “It was a gift” — and waiting another 20 minutes. I signed a citation that promised I would return to Wellton. My agent handed me a copy. “If you call this number in about a week, they’ll answer any questions you have.” I walked back out to our car, where my family was waiting. As we drove away, my wife explained to the kids that all the paperwork was because our dog Axel had made the other dog bark; he’d smelled him in our car.

The weekend was uneventful after that. Our friends in Phoenix asked about the drive over, and it was “all smooth, no traffic, we made good time.” We left early Sunday morning, and heading back to San Diego, we passed that same east-bound checkpoint. I looked over, and I swear there was a burgundy Ford Extra Cab pickup with the doors open, the border patrol dog on a leash, a couple of 20ish kids in shorts being rousted, the whole scenario going down again.

So I came home and waited for a week. The citation read “attempted possession of marijuana,” and “attempted possession of drug paraphernalia.” So I called the court in Wellton and talked to the clerk, my new friend, Rina. She warned, “There’s only so much that I can tell you.” She pulled up my citation. “In cases like yours, the charge is automatically reduced to a misdemeanor.” So I asked, “Well what happens when I appear in court?”

She said, “We only do these types of cases on Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m. On the day you are scheduled to appear, there are about 80 other people with a similar charge. The courtroom only holds about 40, so the list will be divided in half, and there will be two proceedings. The judge will first explain the procedure and the charges against you. She will then present the prosecutor from Yuma County, who explains your options. He will offer you a plea agreement — or at that point you can plead not guilty. If you plead not guilty, you can hire a lawyer, or if you can’t afford a lawyer, the court will assign a public defender to your case.” That was it.

I did some research online to try to figure out my options. What I found is that there are several links to the same law firm (based out of Phoenix), hoping that people like me, who’ve been stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoints and charged with any kind of drug violation, will hire them. They offer a free consultation to discuss your case. Mine went like this:

He said, “Drug laws in Arizona are different from California. These are serious charges. For each charge, the maximum sentence could be a fine up to $4600, 180 days in jail, and/or probation, depending on your circumstance.” So I asked what I could expect from him if I retained his services. For a flat fee of $2000, he would save me a drive back to appear in Wellton, and before my court date, contact the prosecutor and try to get the charges reduced or possibly dismissed. I asked if, based on his experience and my situation — that I had no criminal record and a very small amount of pot — what a likely outcome might be.

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Comments

David Dodd Jan. 20, 2010 @ 1:22 p.m.

What a load of complete corruption. Great story, and a great example how injustices in many parts of the U.S. really works.

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PistolPete Jan. 20, 2010 @ 3:24 p.m.

Nothing will change until WE THE PEOPLE, get off our lazy asses and do something about it. Save a doughnut-kill a cop...

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reddragonfly Jan. 21, 2010 @ 1:08 p.m.

refriedgringo and Pistol Pete -

Just so I'm clear on where your heads are - what mental dysfunction have you been diagnosed with? This is a serious inquiry because you both comment regularly and I want to be able to know that I'm not wasting my time since the Reader doesn't edit comments.

One commentor uses words of "corruption" and "injustice" because someone went to ANOTHER state; broke THEIR law and had to pay a fine.

The other one advocates murder just so he can smoke pot. A weed has more importance than a life. By the way, "WE THE PEOPLE" also includes those of us who don't care what illegal or self-destructive behaviour you do as long as you (and any other consenting adults) keep it within your four walls.

I appreciated that Mr. Graham's recounting of his experience in Arizona was informative, a "heads up" for others and respectful to Arizona's process. I'm sure Mr. Graham is intelligent enough to know that it's not all about the money for Arizona.

Mr. Graham's approach might make me vote for legalizing the purchase of marijuana even though I don't smoke - refried gringo's and Pistol Pete's would not.

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PistolPete Jan. 21, 2010 @ 1:12 p.m.

First off, I don't smoke pot anymore. Second, if you're as much for freedom as you'd like to claim, why isn't pot legal already? The War on Drugs has failed and died a miserable death. Anyone can see that Arizona is only in it for the $$$. F Arizona, f the cops for participating in the death of America and f you for sticking up for these csuckers!

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David Dodd Jan. 21, 2010 @ 5:36 p.m.

reddragonfly: If you read the story carefully, you will note how the checkstop is used as a source of revenue. By using the Border Patrol, a function that is supposed to be curbing illegal immigrants, the "great State of Arizona" is threatening felonies on recreational users of marijuana. They are counting on nabbing travellers that don't know any different State to State. Certainly, individual States are able to treat certain laws any way they choose, and the injustice is that revenue is gained by utilizing Federal agents to enforce State law. To believe that this is not all about money seems naive on your part.

And before you ask, I do not use marijuana nor any other drug.

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samadams Jan. 22, 2010 @ 12:10 a.m.

Yeah, what a LAME System we have....and I say "we" because California is no different...go figure...a state that may as well fully legalize marijuana in order to get us outta this "deficit of doom" we're in. If you've ever been subjected to THE SYSTEM, you find out really quick that it has alot to do with money...if you get in trouble...you go to court and pay fees...then if you go on probation, you pay an "enrollment fee" (wtf?)...then theres community service, which the county gets paid for also, you'd be suprised how much someone pays the county for a van full free labor..(wtf?x2)...then there is the strong possibility that you go to rehab or classes of some sort, which again youre paying for...most counselors or facilitators that run these classes dont care wether youre fixed or not, just another dollar sign walking thru the door...have another relapse with the law?...payday again for the man, cha ching! Those small towns like the one mentioned in this article just love operations like the one they are using out there in BFE...just imagine if that border patrol checkpoint didnt exist? that town would probably shrivel up and turn to dust! I agree with the fact that if you do something illegal, be prepared to face the music...HOWEVER when you go to a court system that has a prosecutor giving a blanket, "here's the deal we have for you" statement...you gotta be kidding!!! talk about quick money, process in/process out so we can call it a day and go home...guess what, when you enforce laws or regulations be prepared to put in the time...Im not coming in for a quickie! This whole article just stinks like crooked-a** good ole boy politics. It wouldnt suprise me if DHS isnt getting a kickback somewhere, somehow, someway from the town of Wellton. I work for a very, very, large organization and you find out after you've been around for awhile, even the most disciplined and straight-laced peeps out there manipulate when its beneficial to them...and I wouldnt categorize our counties or states depts to that same level...youre kidding yourself if you do. Awesome article...the average mo who's never been in any kind of trouble or been subjected to the machine wont grasp any of this feedback that myself, gringo or pistolpete deposit..I would expect either validation or frustration...

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PistolPete Jan. 22, 2010 @ 11:28 p.m.

reddragonfly-I've been on YouTube tonight transfering over a thousand of my favorite videos to playlists and came across this golden oldie. Hope you enjoy...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSvD5SM_uI4

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SDaniels Jan. 23, 2010 @ 6:27 p.m.

re: #7: one eye roll

So, have you seen Ice T's recent girlfriend?

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PistolPete Jan. 23, 2010 @ 9:48 p.m.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry...

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sickgirl1503 Jan. 24, 2010 @ 1:32 p.m.

So the exact same thing happend to us and when I was reading your story I had to ask my husband if was telling anyone else what had happend. We actually we bored on day and decided to drive to Yuma, what a mistake. As soon as we crossed over the state line we were followed by the Border Patrol helicopter and it's spot light.Keep in mind that we are two of the whitest people you'll ever meet both being Irish. When we pulled over to find a decent hotel, a Border Partol officer pulled up behind us and actually started when he saw who was in the car, asked us if we had been to Mexico and sent us on our way. Then the next day we decided to head North to Bullhead City where I have family, and that's when we got stopped at the checkpoint with less than a gram of Medical Marijuana on us. My husband took responsibilty for it and got a ticket and were told we'd have to appear for court in 1 month. So in a months time we appeared in court and the judge laid down fines and my husbands options very similar to yours. Apparently even if you don't come back to court the Public Defender's office will still send you a bill.

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PistolPete Jan. 24, 2010 @ 2:09 p.m.

F the Border Patrol. Someone needs to remind them that the border is....well, the border. The Border isn't 50 miles north of the border. It's not in L.A. It's the border. Border Parol agents are some of the biggest pieces of s on the planet. GED rent-a-cops.

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jerome Jan. 25, 2010 @ 9:31 a.m.

redragonfly: yep complete injustice and MASSIVE CORUPUTION ; zonie's i've heard ya called since moving here with the californicators, used to be a tree sitter thats what ya all call oregonians well, we all have our fun eh? And feel we got the clue on the good life but let me tell ya red-fly you are the biggest part of the problem in america today i dont think it is arizona's corruption but yours ---personally yours ! i do try to try to think the best of people but when they expose themselfs with that kinda pycosis....i really have to dig deep for compasion

should i laugh or cry????????? oh yes my diagnosis of psycosis is a professional one;you are a sick man.

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SDaniels Jan. 26, 2010 @ 12:19 a.m.

"yes my diagnosis of psycosis is a professional one"

Snort. Sorry Jerome, but that is just too funny...;)

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whathappened July 13, 2010 @ 9:28 p.m.

Besides the fact that this "recreational drug user" checkpoint is a ruse to financially support a town with no industry but law enforcement, both the writer and commenters miss the fact that the use of drug dogs themselves are a ruse. If every encounter between drug dog and vehicle were videotaped, it would become clear that it's not the dogs that decide which cars to stop, it's the dog handlers (usually National Guards). Training of both dogs and handlers is insufficient, and conditions at the checkpoints are not conducive to accuracy or reliability. These dogs don't have as much training as service dogs, and records of "false negatives" are not kept, or, if they are, are not publicized. The allegation that the "dog" smelled drugs is simply an excuse to search your vehicle, because without the "dog" telling them to search your car, the search would be unconstitutional. Now you can't question your accuser in court when that accuser is a dog, can you? It is my understanding that performance and records of dog handlers and dogs are so inaccurate that dog handlers no longer wish to appear as witnesses in depositions or court appearances that are videotaped, because they are caught in so many discrepancies and inaccuracies. Also, at least one dog handler, when asked in court what the "signal" or "alert" was that the dog exhibited when it found drugs in the car was, told the court that the "signal" was a secret, and different for each dog handler and dog, and was known only to the dog and the handler. The handlers are profiling cars with out of state plates, cars driven or occupied by minorities, and other types of cars they (not the dog) believe might contain drugs. If they had to prove that the dog actually signaled on each vehicle they pulled over (such as videotaped evidence) and hand over records showing the accuracy rates of both the dogs and handlers (how many times they searched cars that did not contain drugs), these ridiculous checkpoints would eventually be proven unconstitutional and seen for what they truly are - money making schemes disguised as "border protection", and supported by people who have no education in civil liberties.

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whathappened July 14, 2010 @ 8:09 a.m.

Also the location of these checkpoints makes no sense. If I were an "illegal immigrant", I'd be leaving Arizona as fast as possible, most likely through California - but they are searching cars on a road that not only does not cross the international border, but this particular checkpoint searches cars coming INTO Arizona. This is because people IN Arizona already know about the checkpoints. Recreational drug users in AZ leave their drugs at home when they drive through checkpoints. The checkpoints aren't stopping drug use. They have to catch unsuspecting people, people who assume they have constitutional rights, like out of towners coming into Arizona for tourism or job purposes, or those traveling through the state to get somewhere else. This is why the majority of cars pulled over are from out of state. This is why the prosecutor does his spiel about Oregon, Washington, and California. They WANT to catch medical marijuana users from these states. It's not at all about "illegal immigrants" at this checkpoint, it's all about small time recreational personal drug use, and nothing else (well, besides the money they get from these unsuspecting motorists). And if you listen carefully while you wait for them to search your car, you'll here the staff at these checkpoints bragging about wild parties, excessive drinking, their own marijuana use, unlawful driving, and all kinds of stuff that they are arresting or citing people at the checkpoint for. Somewhere I read a quote from a law enforcement officer trying to justify searching, citing, and arresting "grandmothers" for small amounts of marijuana. He basically said that ultimately the "grandmother's" marijuana comes from the drug cartels in Mexico, so grandmothers are contributing to drug violence. There are a few things wrong with this logic. No one buys Mexican marijuana - it call comes from BC and California. Also, if you want to put the drug cartels out of business, legalize marijuana and grow it in the U.S.. The drug cartels are no longer about small time marijuana use, and these checkpoints are rarely if ever impacting them.

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whathappened July 16, 2010 @ 10:28 p.m.

The whole thing is a complete scam. That checkpoint is actually designated by law enforcement as "Project Stone Garden". Now you can't tell me that that's the best name for an immigration checkpoint. I-8 is not at the border, and never crosses any international border. They are only stopping cars on the way INTO Arizona, and not on the way out. If they ticket approximately 200 people a week for marijuana possession alone, that equates to roughly $400 per ticket for the county, or $80,000 per week in revenue (over $4 million dollars per year). Without the checkpoint, as someone said, Yuma County would dry up and blow away.

And it turns out, the dog handlers now refuse to testify on videotape because they started to get caught in so many inaccuracies and discrepancies. Also, they don't keep records of the dogs' "false positive alerts" - where the dog allegedly tells its handler there are drugs in the car and it turns out there are no drugs. And when one handler was asked in court what the signal was that the dog gave when the dog smelled drugs (because nobody can tell when the dog signals), she told the court that the signal is different for each dog and that the alert signal is a "secret" between the dog and the handler.

Now how can a DOG determine probable cause? You can't question a dog in court. It's like using a divining rod or something. It's the handler that's doing the profiling, not the dog. Out of state plates? Check. Crappy car? Check. Minority? Check. Mexican? Shoot 'Em.

It's all so maddening. Even a local public defender got pulled over and searched after a dog "alerted" his car, and this guy is straight laced. Everyone but law enforcement readily admits that it's a ploy to get money from travelers, mainly from California/Oregon/Washington, who don't know the checkpoints are there. According to the author of this blog, the prosecutor rants about how Arizona won't recognize medical marijuana cards from those states

I can't believe none of these cases have gone to higher courts on the basis of illegal searches.

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vshely Aug. 3, 2010 @ 2:35 p.m.

Mr. Graham,

I just had the same situiation happen to me on my way to Arizona

and have been given a court date in Wellton this August, I was

wondering what you think will happen to me, or if you have any

other in sight or words of wisdom you could provide, it would

be very appreciated. Thank you for your time in advance and

thank you for the article.

Vince

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