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Border Patrol's Gremlin Unit & Constitutional Rights

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Old Patrol HG is a Facebook group for current and retired Border Patrol agents.

The Supreme Court of the United States has decided in Egbert v. Boule that Border Patrol agents cannot be held liable for violating someone's civil rights. While victims still have a right to complain to the agency about their treatment, this decision makes it near impossible to sue a Border Patrol agent for constitutional rights violations in order to obtain reparations.

I wondered about constitutional rights often when I served as a Border Patrol agent. I never believed that our checkpoints were legal. Stopping people on large interstates or small two lane highways seemed like a violation of the 4th Amendment's right against unreasonable searches and seizures. I often thought about the secret and little known unit in the Border Patrol called the Gremlin Unit and if it was violating constitutional rights as well.

Gremlin Units were started by Border Patrol agents working the highways looking for loads of smuggled humans or narcotics. Once cell phones became prevalent, agents noticed that smugglers were using cell phones to communicate. They watched our checkpoint and the surrounding roads looking for the best times to try and smuggle loads through: when checkpoints were down or closed, when the side roads were not monitored for a variety of reasons, etc. Lookouts often called the smugglers and told them.

At some point, agents began buying radio scanners that picked up cell phone communications easily. They purchased these units for about $100 from places like Radio Shack and carried them in their "tricky bags" or duty bags. Agents then listened to the cell phone traffic. From the older analog phones, they could hear lookouts and smugglers talking. This is how Border Patrol agents could stop a car with only 10 pounds of cocaine in it. The reasonable suspicion they used was made up: driver looked at the agent too long, driver refused to look at the agent, proximity to the border, blah blah blah. The truth was that they knew it had some drugs in it because they were listening to people's cell phones.

This is completely illegal. Law enforcement is required to obtain warrants to listen to cell phones, but Border Patrol agents didn't follow the law and didn't care. Most people they arrested were smuggling and most often pled guilty. Agents never admitted they were listening. They did not write in their reports that they were using scanners, and so the courts and defendants had no idea. On the off chance that someone ever discovered the scanners, agents routinely said that they only used it to listen to cartels in Mexico.

That of course was a lie.

As a Senior Patrol Agent in Campo, California, I was asked to join the Gremlin Unit. I was known for vehicle stops and seizures and had never lost a case in court. Knowledge of this unit only came after achieving the rank of the Senior Patrol, and I was approached by another agent from Temecula to start using one. Thankfully, I could not understand the rapid pace at which people spoke Spanish and was able to decline without violating my oath.

There is a chapter on this incident in my new book, Against the Wall.

I'm not the only one who's come forward about Border Patrol agents illegally listening to cell phones to conduct traffic stops for drugs and humans. This is what former CBP Deputy Commissioner of Internal Affairs had to say about it in a deposition:

And here's a recent retired Border Patrol agent answering a question posed to agents on social media about what they carry in their tricky bags:

Agents still use scanners today even though most cell phones today are digital and more likely to be encrypted. There are still many smugglers out there using analog phones, and of course, there is always the possibility that agents are using Stingray and other equipement that can unscramble the encryption. Whenever I see an agent stop a car and there is a small amount of narcotics or only a few people being smuggled, I think to myself that they might be using a scanner and listening because the reasonable suspicion cannot be that the car was "heavily laden."

This is just another thing to think about now that the Supreme Court has stated that Border Patrol agents cannot be held liable for violating constitutional rights. I'm not even sure anymore why agents bother to swear and oath to the United States Constitution.


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