An Encinal rancher and attorney is suing federal and state law enforcement for allegedly trespassing and installing a surveillance camera on his property without his consent.
Ricardo D. Palacios filed the suit against Mario Martinez, chief Border Patrol agent in the Laredo sector, and a Texas ranger.
The suit alleges that Border Patrol agents have trespassed onto Palacios’ ranch on multiple occasions and continued their intrusions even after he confronted them and forbid them from entering his property.
Raul Casso, Palacios’ attorney, said his client did not know for how long the camera had been there before he found it nor if there are any other cameras still hidden on his ranch.
“Everyone has a reasonable right to privacy and a right to private property,” Casso said. “That right is protected with laws against trespassing and unwarranted police intrusions. In this case, to add insult to injury, they have a camera that they secretly stuck in a tree, watching over 24/7, on property they were not even supposed to be on.”
Palacios found the camera hidden in a mesquite tree near his son’s home, with both agents and the ranger, Ernesto Salinas, claiming ownership of the device and demanding its return, according to the suit.
Salinas threatened Palacios with pressing theft charges if the camera was not returned to him, the lawsuit says.
Palacios often found agents roaming freely around his ranch, and when he would ask them to leave, they would sometimes claim that they were within 25 miles of the border and thus acting within their rights, court documents state.
U.S. law allows immigration officers to access private lands, but not homes, for the purpose of patrolling the border to prevent the illegal entry of immigrants into the country as long as they are within a distance of 25 miles from any external boundary of the United States.
Palacios says his ranch, located at approximately the 35-mile marker of Interstate 35, is outside this boundary. He is seeking $500,000 in damages for mental and emotional distress along with punitive damages and attorney fees.
Palacios asked the court to declare that his ranch is located beyond 25 miles from the external boundary of the country and that Martinez, Salinas and the other agents broke the law by entering private property without a warrant, without pressing circumstances and without his consent.
Border Patrol and Texas DPS declined to comment on the allegations, citing pending litigation. The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the defendants, declined to comment as well.
Casso, Palacios’ attorney, said that Palacios is a well-respected lawyer in the community who knows the law and his rights. He said that after years of unsavory confrontations with Border Patrol agents, the finding of the surveillance camera was the proverbial last straw for his client.
“The government is peeking around where it’s not supposed to without any judicial oversight,” Casso said.
He said that whether it was purposeful behavior or incompetence, the agents were not acting within the scope of their employment and were breaking the law.
He added that his client’s constitutional rights to privacy and private property were being trampled on.
“It’s not us against the good guys,” Casso said. “We’re on the side of the law. We’re enforcing the Constitution and the laws that emanate from it. The government and its agencies need to respect private property and the individuals whose property it is.”
Since the filing of the suit, Palacios has not had any further incidents with agents, according to Casso. He believes the agencies will behave until the outcome of the lawsuit is decided.
The issues with agents date back to an altercation one of Palacios’ sons had with multiple agents in 2010. At about 1 a.m. April 4, both of Palacios’ sons were driving home to their ranch, and after driving up to the I-35 checkpoint, Ricardo D. Palacios Jr. refused to tell the officer where he lived, according to the suit.
The brothers were directed to secondary inspection, where 10 agents came out of nowhere and body slammed Palacios to the ground, according to court documents. He was later placed in a detention cell for about an hour and half before being released, the petition states.
Later that evening, Palacios’ sons arrived at their ranch and found several agents inside an unmarked truck at the front gate of property. After confronting the agents, they threatened to file assault charges against Palacios, according to the lawsuit.
The agents left after a supervisor arrived and ended the confrontation, court documents state.
“Since these awful incidents, and over the last several years, (Palacios has) encountered agents … going onto their land, roaming freely about, at will, day and night, without any warrant or legal authority, without landowner consent, over landowners’ objections, and without exigent circumstances that would permit such intrusions upon private property,” the lawsuit says.
The camera Palacios found on his property appears to be part of Operation Drawbridge, a multi-million-dollar effort by Texas DPS to build a “virtual wall” along the border. The agency has purchased 4,000 cameras, similar to the wildlife cameras popular with ranchers, for about $300 a piece and installed them across South Texas, according to DPS.
The cameras can be monitored by the state’s Border Security Operations Center in Austin, the six Joint Operations Intelligence Centers DPS has along the border, and CBP officials.
According to a DPS presentation to Congress last year, the images captured by the cameras can also be viewed by local law enforcement and ranchers who have access through a password-protected web page. The state has touted it as “high tech capability at a low tech cost.”
Civil rights violations
The Border Patrol has interpreted the law as giving them wide leeway to operate onto private property, said Efrén Olivares, the racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. However, the courts haven’t defined “patrolling,” and it’s not clear if that allows Border Patrol agents to place sensors or cameras on private land, Olivares said.
The fact that the camera is apparently the property of DPS raises more questions. A state trooper might be able to enter private property within the 25 miles and install a Border Patrol camera if they’re working with Homeland Security, Olivares said. But the law doesn’t allow state or local law enforcement access to private property without a warrant, even within the 25-mile zone granted to Homeland Security, nor does it allow state or local law enforcement agencies to place cameras on private property.
“The statute grants that authority to (Homeland Security) agents or employees, not any other state agency or county agency or city police department,” Olivares said. “It doesn’t mean that within 25 miles, any agency, state, local, can enter private land.”
The state of Texas may have found a way around that. Testifying before Congress last year, DPS Director Steve McCraw said, “The State of Texas has provided Border Patrol agents more than 4,000 low-cost, high-capability cameras to detect smuggling activity along the border.”
“If they are giving it to the Border Patrol, they’re free to do it, and now it’s no longer the property of DPS,” Olivares said, meaning Border Patrol could then put the cameras on private property within the 25-mile zone.
However, it would then be difficult for the state to bring charges against Palacios, as Ranger Salinas allegedly threatened.
“If that’s what they are doing, it is then Border Patrol’s property,” Olivares said of the camera.
If a judge finds that Palacios’ ranch isn’t within 25 miles of the river, then the issue of whether Border Patrol has access to his property is rendered moot. The zone tracks the loops and bends of the Rio Grande, but Palacios’ lawyers say the closest the border comes to his ranch is more than 27 miles from his property line.
“It sounds like there’s no point any piece of that property is within 25 miles of any portion of the river,” Olivares said. “I hope they’re right, and if they are, then I don’t think DHS is going to have any argument as to whether this 25-mile provision applies.”
“We hear about this happening to people, but it’s sort of isolated incidents … and it doesn’t necessarily rise to a lawsuit,” added Olivares, who works in the Rio Grande Valley. “But it’s still abuse of authority by CBP agents, so I’m glad there’s a lawsuit taking this on, because there’s a problem of Border Patrol and CBP agents doing more than the law allows them to do and they trespass on private property.”
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for border and immigration issues at the American Civil Liberties Union, summed up his opinion with a single statement: “The question really becomes what sort of surveillance is really looming over every border resident in their daily lives?”