A Texas rancher has found himself playing a game of federal hot potato to keep a spying device he found on his property out of the hands of border patrol officials.
As first reported by Ars Technica, Ricardo Palacios, a 74-year-old rancher and attorney, found a small camera on a tree near his son’s home in Encinal, Texas last November. Palacios has contended with border agents since 2010 and, tired of agents going onto his land without permission, removed the camera. Not long after, that, Palacios says officials representing both US Customs and Border Protection and the Texas Rangers called him, each claiming they owned the camera and that Palacios would face penalties if he refused to return it. Palacios sued them.
The camera is now in possession of Palacios’ attorney and the ongoing federal suit raises an obvious, but still unanswered, question: Where does the border end?
Palacios’ ranch is 35 miles outside the Laredo, Texas border crossing. The law currently says agents can go onto private property within 25 miles of the border in the course of stopping illegal crossings. But Ars reports that Texas officials exceeding those bounds have claimed “qualified immunity,” which shields officers from liability when their transgressions don’t violate “clearly established” rights. If qualified immunity allows officers to exceed the 25 mile restriction, then what are the actual limits of border surveillance?
In Palacios’ suit, he argues that border patrol agents have installed thousands of “drawbridge cameras,” inexpensive surveillance cameras that respond to motion sensors and, once triggered, transmit GPS data and record everything they see. The suit argues that the cameras should have the same limits as officers: 25 miles. As written in the suit:
The prevalence of inexpensive technology increasingly eliminates the distinction between what private citizens keep private and what they display in public. All the government needs to do, as it did in the present case, is sneak a camera in some place where nobody knows. Thus, the decreasing cost of technology leaves us all vulnerable to government spying.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the government has demanded someone return the device used to spy on them. In 2010, Yasir Afifi, an Arab-American student in California, found a GPS tracker on his car. The tracker was placed there by the FBI after Afifi’s friend made troubling comments on Reddit about how easy it was to bomb a mall. After posting pictures of the device on Reddit, Afifi was soon visited by FBI agents and told to return the devices, which he did.
Afifi later sued the FBI for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The case was tossed out after a judge upheld the FBI agents’ right to qualified immunity, writing in the dismissal that “the individual defendants’ warrantless use of the GPS device was valid in California.”
No date has been set for Palacios’ case.