The Best Little Checkpoint in Texas
Getting busted at the infamous Sierra Blanca inspection station plunged me into a strange and twisted reality.
The dog’s name was Blackie, and I knew right away she was trouble. I had two beautiful marijuana buds in a plastic vial in my shaving kit inside a suitcase in the trunk of the car—and the nosey mutt sniffed them out from ten feet away. She promptly squatted, the signal to her handler that the vehicle smelled suspicious. He nodded to the Border Patrol agent standing beside my car, a stern young man in crisp green fatigues, who put his hand on his sidearm, opened my door, and said the words you never want to hear: “Please get out of the car, sir.”
I sighed and got out. Several agents surrounded my car and popped the trunk. I watched helplessly as Blackie jumped in and ferreted out my little stash faster than I could have gotten to it myself. One of the agents held up the plastic vial, and another made a gesture like a football referee signaling a personal foul. The agent beside me tapped my elbow and said, “Come with me, sir.”
It was your basic pothead screwup. I was at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection station on Interstate 10 near Sierra Blanca, a nearly invisible town about two thirds of the way from El Paso to Van Horn. The station has been there since 1974, stopping everyone traveling east on the transcontinental highway. I had passed through it many times over the years without any problems, and that made me careless last summer. I should have known better.
Willie Nelson put the Sierra Blanca checkpoint on the map when he was busted there in November 2010, and touring musicians have been following his lead ever since. Snoop Dogg (a.k.a. Snoop Lion), Fiona Apple, Nelly, Armie Hammer (the actor who plays the new Lone Ranger)—all made news after their vehicles were searched at the checkpoint and dope was discovered. Last year the Hollywood Reporter called it “the checkpoint of no return.” The Internet is full of dire warnings about the place, directions to back roads that avoid it, and videos showing the real-time experience of passing through the checkpoint successfully, which is best achieved by not having pot in the trunk of your car.
But those buds had been so pretty—dense yet fluffy, with the tiny purple hairs that promise perfect ripeness. A green-thumb friend in Southern California had graciously given them to me before my trip to Texas. Which is how, one day last August, I ended up driving right into the most famous dope-busting trap in the whole United States, holding. Classic.
The agent led me to the checkpoint office, a modest little vinyl-sided prefab structure (the Sierra Blanca station predates the whopping budgets that national security commands these days). The main room had tan walls with bright fluorescent lights and a narrow bench with a rail behind it, to which I was handcuffed. A middle-aged couple was cuffed to the rail a few feet down from me. They wore jeans and scruffy T-shirts and didn’t appear to be celebrities. “What did they get you for?” I asked.
The woman blinked back tears. “I had two joints in my purse.”
My kind of criminal. The Sierra Blanca checkpoint, which is located in the Border Patrol’s Big Bend sector, busts around 2,500 people per year, and most of them are hapless potheads like myself. According to a recent study by the Center for Investigative Reporting, American citizens accounted for 80 percent of the arrests made in the sector between 2005 and 2011, and 88 percent of the drug seizures were for small amounts well below what qualifies as “trafficking,” which is what the agents are really looking for. While I sat on the perp bench, they dutifully searched my car and its contents, hoping to find more-incriminating evidence. This was extremely time-consuming, because the agents were not only rigorous but considerate as well. They refolded my clothes and underwear neater than I’ve ever done and even put most of my CDs back in their correct cases for the first time in years.
Meanwhile, my fingerprints were recorded on an inkless electronic touch pad such as I’d never seen on a television cop show, and my picture was taken with one of those egg-shaped digital cameras that nobody would use but a government agency with no interest in flattering you. Then I sat there in handcuffs for hours while my prints and mug shot were circulated to cop databases around the nation. This is a worrisome process for anyone. Who among us can ever be sure we haven’t pissed off a government computer somewhere?
The rationale for all this effort was later explained to me by Carry Huffman, the deputy chief patrol agent of the Big Bend sector. “Every pothead isn’t a bad guy,” he said. “But every bad guy is a pothead.” By detaining people for a couple of joints, the Border Patrol, which since 2003 has been part of the Department of Homeland Security, is able to investigate everything about them, and this can occasionally lead to catching some genuinely bad guys. Car thieves and fugitives and completely clueless big-time smugglers—not to mention terrorists—all can be snared in the follow-up to the canine alarm. Of course, that happens only rarely; nationally, the Border Patrol has caught just one so-called terrorist, a University of Houston student practicing paramilitary operations in the Big Bend. But it’s not backing off.
“Our mission is to keep bad people and bad things out of the country,” Huffman told me. “We’re the only federal agency that does interdictions; we make the arrests and build the cases, then we turn them over to the various agencies that have jurisdiction for those particular crimes.”
He was speaking here of the FBI, DEA, ATF, ICE—the vast federal alphabet of bad-guy hunters who might lay claim to an evildoer who has landed on the perp bench in Sierra Blanca. As I sat there, a pair of DEA guys arrived, having driven the ninety miles from El Paso to take charge of a truck driver caught with several large cardboard boxes of weed. The DEA agents wore Dockers and sneakers and looked like frat brothers compared with the sober, smartly uniformed Border Patrol agents.
I had lots of time to observe these agents and can testify that they are a humorless crew. Homeland security is a critical mission, and a certain zeal is apparently pressed into the troops like collar starch. Of the 650 agents assigned to the Big Bend sector, which is geographically the largest along the U.S.-Mexico border, perhaps 40 were on duty at the checkpoint during my stay on the bench. I never saw a single one of them crack a smile. They were relentlessly courteous to me and the other hangdog perps, but it felt merely dutiful, like part of the job. They are federal workers, after all, a caste never known for its winsome nature.
After several hours they grew bored with me. Like the vast majority of the people who land on the checkpoint bench, I wasn’t wanted by any of the cop computers and my crime was too minor for the feds to care about. I’d been caught with 1.7 ounces of pot, which is technically a federal misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison, but the Department of Justice almost never prosecutes a case so small. Instead, I was turned over to the State of Texas. A Hudspeth County deputy arrived on the scene wearing rumpled khakis and a big Texas grin, the very picture of a jolly policeman. That’s when things got interesting.
EVEN BY THE LONESOME STANDARDS OF WEST Texas, Hudspeth County is a bleak and windy expanse. It stretches more than 120 miles from corner to corner, yet just 3,500 humans reside in it, and probably less than half that number of trees. The county seat, Sierra Blanca, is a wan relic of better times, with two gas stations and no stoplights, and the last surviving adobe courthouse in Texas, a visible reminder that this was the frontier not so long ago.
Arvin West grew up in that courthouse. His mother, Pilar Ramirez West, was the longtime county treasurer, and little Arvin dreamed of someday being the sheriff. He became a deputy in 1983, achieved his dream in 2000, and today he’s a throwback lawman right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, or maybe Zane Grey. When he went to Washington in 2006 to testify on border conditions before the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, he told the solemn members that they were “dumbasses” if they accepted everything the Border Patrol told them.
West has fairly alarmist notions about border conditions. He believes the drug cartels across the river are a clear and present danger to our national security and advocates a more muscular response than Washington is willing to contemplate. His men have engaged in furious gun battles with cartelistas, and he thinks the feds are a bunch of wimps for not letting the lead fly with more gusto. Not surprisingly, West is a regular on right-wing talk radio and a Fox News favorite. And yet despite his hard-ass theories about border security, he takes an extremely dim view of the so-called drug war.
Increasingly over the past ten years, West and his dozen deputies have been overwhelmed by a steady flow of small-time potheads arrested at the checkpoint. In the state of Texas, anything over four ounces is a felony; between two and four ounces is a Class A misdemeanor; and less than two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor. Both misdemeanor charges can result in jail time and the suspension of one’s driver’s license. But that little adobe courthouse couldn’t begin to handle the caseload if the law were truly enforced. Hudspeth County doesn’t even have a full-time prosecutor; it has to bring one over from El Paso twice a month.
West’s solution is to write tickets for possession of “drug paraphernalia,” a Class C misdemeanor that doesn’t require a court appearance and imposes a fine of $500 (plus $27 in “court costs”). The fact that you were caught red-handed with actual pot is conveniently ignored. This paraphernalia ticket is offered to you by a smiling deputy who can get you out of those handcuffs and on your way again if you simply sign for it. After five or six hours on the perp bench, it’s an easy decision. Like most everyone in that position, including Snoop Dogg, who was found to be in possession of three containers of marijuana weighing just over two ounces, I signed my ticket and put Sierra Blanca behind me as fast as the speed limit allowed, mailing in the fine from someplace mellower later on. I never made it to the courthouse.
I NEVER MET the sheriff either, so I arranged a visit the next time I was passing through. West’s office adjoins the Hudspeth County jail, which during his tenure has been expanded to house some two hundred prisoners, the majority of them felons caught up the road by the Border Patrol.
“When I took office in 2000,” he told me, “we had less than a thousand federally initiated cases a year to deal with, and most of them were felonies. Now we get three times that many, and eighty percent are misdemeanors. It’s just gotten ridiculous.”
It’s because of the dogs, of course. According to Carry Huffman there are fifty K-9 units—a dog and handler—assigned to the Big Bend sector, enough for several to be nosing around the checkpoint every day and night. Most are Belgian Malinois, a shepherd cousin with strong plebeian genes. They make indifferent pets but tremendous work dogs, with phenomenal powers of scent recognition. The Border Patrol trains them to alert on various different chemical formulations of cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamines, and opiates—the whole troublesome rainbow of uppers and downers.
On my return visit to the checkpoint I asked to meet one of these canine heroes and was introduced to a seven-year-old Malinois named Spike and his supervisor, Jorge Limon. They’d been together four years and had dozens of busts to their credit. When I asked Limon what he considered their finest moment, he smiled at Spike and said, “The car battery.”
The story was that Spike had once squatted by a car only to have a search turn up nothing. This is not an uncommon occurrence, since the dogs can smell the residual odor of drugs, and the officers were about to declare a false alert. But Spike refused to budge; he kept sniffing the car’s battery. Limon insisted they crack it open, whereupon they found half a pound of pot that Spike had smelled through the battery acid.
There are scores of similar stories, like the dog that sniffed marijuana packed in plastic and hidden inside factory-sealed number-ten cans of jalapeño peppers. The drug-detecting abilities of trained dogs are so reliable that the Supreme Court has blessed them time and again as sufficient for probable cause. They are also “efficient and cost-effective,” Huffman told me, a near foolproof means of identifying just about every smuggler, no matter how small-time, trying to make it through the checkpoint.
The number of drug-sniffing dogs has increased by 40 percent since 2006, when the George W. Bush administration began to pour resources into border security during the country’s last big push for immigration reform. Despite Bush’s efforts, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 failed, but border security has only continued to tighten since then. Between 2006 and 2011, the Border Patrol’s budget grew by 67 percent, and the number of agents in the field skyrocketed, from 12,000 to 21,000 (and the immigration bill recently passed by the Senate includes a plan to double the number of agents). The surge in border security has been an effective deterrent to illegal immigration (in 2011 the number of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants was lower than in any year since 1972), but it’s also accounted for a jump in the number of drug seizures.
Most of the increase comes from misdemeanor busts like mine, but felony arrests for pot possession have also risen dramatically, and that has resulted in a different problem for Hudspeth County. Unless one of the federal agencies takes custody of the offender, nearly everyone charged with a felony at the checkpoint is transferred to the county jail in Sierra Blanca, to be fed, housed, and supervised for extended periods, often many months.
The federal government is responsible for paying to keep these felons in custody, since they were arrested by federal agents, but in recent years the funding for this purpose has been drastically cut by Congress. The very same Congress that has hired more agents to make more arrests has reduced or eliminated the money necessary to keep the criminals in jail. And that doesn’t sit well with West, who gets stuck with the bill.
“We’re lucky to get fifty cents on the dollar,” he told me. “That’s what they gave us last year, and we had to fight like hell to get it.”
This year threatens to be even worse. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s study, the four states along the U.S.-Mexico border, all of which receive federal reimbursements for processing and prosecuting offenders, will get less than $5 million in 2013. That’s down from $31 million in 2010.
This helps explain why West is so lenient on small-time potheads like me. Those paraphernalia tickets do bring in more than $1 million a year, but that’s nowhere near enough to cover the expenses of running a two-hundred-inmate jail. Adding another two thousand misdemeanor cases would bring the whole system crashing down. It’s a situation that requires a sheriff to get a little creative.
TAKE THE WILLIE Nelson case. Willie’s stash of excellent weed tipped the checkpoint scales at nearly seven ounces, felony weight, and that meant Willie was going to jail. West drove over in person to collect the prisoner.
“I sat him down in my office,” recalled West. “There were two other fellows with him—I think they drove the bus. I told them if one of those other guys said the dope was his, then Willie could walk. Willie said nope, it was his.
“I took a deep breath and let him sit there a minute to think about it. I looked at him real hard, then I asked again whose dope was it. ‘Are you sure it’s yours?’ Willie said yep, it was all his.”
The word spread quickly that Willie Nelson was in the county jail. West’s brother, Wayne, the Precinct 1 county commissioner, rushed over with his guitar as soon as he heard. A part-time singer-songwriter himself, Wayne played what he thought was his best composition, “Bull-Hauling Man,” for Willie, who told him it was pretty darn good.
The octogenarian county attorney, Kit Bramblett, who has no jurisdiction in federally initiated criminal cases, suggested Willie pay for his crime by singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in the old adobe courthouse. This was gleefully reported by news media across the country but soon overruled by the county judge, Becky Dean-Walker, who reckoned it shameless favoritism. It turned out she had no authority in the case either, but by then the Willie Nelson bust was the biggest thing to ever happen in Sierra Blanca, and everyone in town had something to say about it.
Three miles west of town, at the checkpoint where the bust had actually occurred, the Border Patrol was unfazed and tight-lipped. They referred all media inquiries to the sheriff, who was happy to field them. As an elected official, West has a politician’s knack for the spotlight. He also has the good-ol’-boy streak that all successful Texas sheriffs must possess to some degree. And this had a curious result.
At some point in the continuing investigation of Willie’s crime, it was discovered that the very same stash that had weighed almost seven ounces at the checkpoint weighed less than half that on the jailhouse scales. This reduced the charge against him to a misdemeanor and made Willie eligible for one of those $527 paraphernalia tickets, which is how the case was eventually disposed.
Two years later, when I asked West about this discrepancy between his scales and the feds’, he shrugged. “They don’t always get things right at that checkpoint,” he said. “They probably weighed the container along with the dope.” This sounded just plausible enough to make me smile, and West smiled back. Then he offered to show me the evidence room.
The evidence room of the Hudspeth County jail is a pothead’s treasure trove. There are stacks and stacks of bags and sacks and big cartons and small white boxes, all full of marijuana and crammed to the ceiling of a cinder-block vault the size of a four-car garage. Each bag and sack and carton and box is stamped with a case number and sealed with evidence tape, but the skunky aroma of all that pot is irrepressible, overwhelming, positively intoxicating. According to West, when he showed this room to Willie, the pothead king exclaimed, “Whoa! Y’all got a lotta shit here. You don’t need mine, give it back.”
I laughed because I knew exactly how Willie had felt. Somewhere in that room were my own perfect buds. Up near the top of one stack I noticed a box with case number 10-2034 stenciled on the side, next to which someone had scrawled “Willy.” I couldn’t help wondering what the contents might weigh.
When I asked West how he felt about his celebrated decision to release Willie, he shook his head. “The last thing in this world I want to be is a pothead hero,” he said. “But the laws we’ve got now don’t work. Something’s gotta change.”
Al Reinert is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly and a documentary filmmaker whose most recent movie is An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.