Hudspeth County, Texas
SIERRA BLANCA, Texas — The Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 10 near Sierra Blanca is famous for catching celebrities and other motorists with drugs.
But over the summer, some of those carrying small amounts of drugs — mostly marijuana — were able to avoid arrest.
The Sheriff's Office of Hudspeth County stopped taking small checkpoint cases that had become too big of a burden on local taxpayers.
“We’re providing the federal government a service; if you quit paying, we’re going to quit doing it,” said Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West.
When the amount of drugs does not meet the threshold for a federal case, the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s office makes the arrest. But for nearly two months beginning in May, some of those who would have been booked in the Hudspeth County jail were waved through.
“I know of at least six or seven cases the Border Patrol sent down the road,” Sheriff West said.
He said he tried, but could not get the exact number of people who avoided arrest.
On average, his deputies arrest as many as ten people a day at the checkpoint who are caught with a small amount of drugs.
“It’s a full-time job,” West said.
But over the summer, the Hudspeth County Sheriff put the brakes on checkpoint arrests because he said the federal government had failed to reimburse the county as promised. The federal government has slashed payments under a special program that helped border counties cover some of the cost of handling a large number of number of drug cases.
“Somebody’s got to pay it, but it shouldn't be our taxpayers,” West said.
The tiny town of Sierra Blanca near the big checkpoint is a virtual ghost town in a poor, rural county.
The sheriff said local taxpayers had been footing the bill for the federal government for three years. The county does make money from people who pay a fine to avoid court and a misdemeanor drug offense.
After the sheriff worked out a deal to get $150,000 to cover costs for the new fiscal year, the checkpoint arrests resumed.
On one sunny morning a deputy walked a handcuffed young woman into the jail. She said she was driving to Houston with her boyfriend, but would only do an interview if her name was not used.
“No, we didn't know the checkpoint was there at all,” she said.
She’s a student, and like the vast majority of people arrested at the checkpoint, a U.S. citizen.
“It was just stupid stuff we had on us, and got caught,” the woman said.
The student had “marijuana, hashish, and hydrocodone pills,” according to the arresting deputy.
The bag with the evidence would go in the temporary storage locker with other seized drugs. That evidence is later transferred to a large room that reeks of marijuana.
“We get all kinds of candy that they get out in those stores in California where it’s legal to have marijuana, and the candy has marijuana in it,” said Captain Robert D. Wilson of the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office.
He pulled a bag filled with colorful hard candy out of an evidence locker stuffed with drugs seized at the checkpoint in recent arrests.
“It went empty when we stopped taking the cases for a little bit,” Wilson said.
The Hudspeth County Sheriff often warns drivers that even if they live in a state that allows medical marijuana, the checkpoint is in Texas, and he enforces Texas laws.