Can customs officials search your car’s gas tank for drugs without reasonable suspicion or warrant?

Customs officials seized 37 kilograms—a little more than 81 pounds—of marijuana from respondent Manuel Flores-Montano’s gas tank at the international border.

Searches made at the border pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border. The executive has plannery authority to conduct routine searches and seizures at the border without probable cause or a warrant in order to regulate the collection of duties and to prevent the introduction of contraband into this country. It is axiomatic that the United States, as sovereign, has the inherent authority to protect and a paramount interest in protecting its national integrity.

Respondent urges that he has a privacy interest in his fuel tank and that the suspicionless disassembly of his tank is an invasion of his privacy. But on many occasions, The Court noted that the expectation of privacy is less at the border than it is in the interior and that automobiles seeking entry into this country may be searched. It is difficult to imagine how the search of a gas tank which should be solely a repository for fuel could be more of an invasion of privacy than the search of the automobile’s passenger compartment. Respondent also argues that the disassembly and reassembly of his gas tank is a significant depravation of his property interest because it may damage the vehicle. A gas tank search involves a brief procedure that can be reversed without damaging the safety or operation of the vehicle, and any interference with a motorist’s possessory interest is justified by the government’s paramount interest in protecting the boarder.

Government has the authority to conduct suspicionless inspections at the border including the authority to remove, disassemble, and reassemble a vehicle’s fuel tank.

The full case here:
United States v. Flores-Montano, 541 U.S. 149 (2004)

***I misspoke several times in the video by stating border patrol agents when I meant to say “CBP officers”. The United States Border Patrol operates 71 traffic checkpoints near Mexico–United States border. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers are likely to operate our country’s ports of entry. Of course, there could be joint task forces when multiple agencies are involved in one case. The same individuals can also work for multiple agencies. And all of these agencies fall under the Department of Homeland Security.

In this case, it was the Otay Mesa Port of Entry and the customs agents conducted the search. The same rules would likely apply to checkpoints, such as the ones in Campo or San Clemente, California. BP agents are likely to man those. No need to focus on nomenclature. The point is, the government can search your vehicle, including the gas tank, at POEs or checkpoints without probable cause or a warrant.

Sidenote. I operate a successful practice by helping over 70 clients at any one point in time, travel to courts throughout the state despite the pandemic, run a youtube channel, and volunteer my time in my community. Frankly, there are youtube channels with much better quality videos and even better actors reading scripts, except they never spent a day in court. Thanks for watching!

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
LAWSTACHE™ LAW FIRM | Criminal Defense and Business Law

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