SAN JUAN, Texas (AP) — For more than a year, police in a South Texas town have been targeting gang members with roadside checkpoints, raising questions of profiling and unreasonable searches.
The checkpoints set up periodically by San Juan police ostensibly check for insurance, seat belts and driver's licenses, but police Chief Juan Gonzalez said they are a tool in curtailing the area's gang activity. A number of gangs are active in the border town and its neighboring communities.
At the checkpoints, vehicles are stopped, drivers are questioned and sometimes asked to voluntarily allow police to photograph their gang tattoos. The information, once vetted, is added to a state gang database.
"I can tell you 99 percent of the people we stop, they actually tell us they're with whatever gang," Gonzalez told The McAllen Monitor (http://bit.ly/TzFD9l ). He characterized the checkpoints as a "non-conventional, but legal investigative approach."
But Joseph Martin, a lawyer with the South Texas Civil Rights Project, said the checkpoints raise constitutional questions about unreasonable searches and seizures.
"That certainly raises that alarm that what they're doing could be unconstitutional," Martin said. "Police have always been pressing against restrictions the Constitution puts on protecting rights of individuals."
One night in October, police along with constables, set up a checkpoint following a drive-by shooting in the area. In one car, a man told police he was a member of "La Eme," the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Police asked him to remove his shirt so they could photograph his tattoos.
"We know what we're looking for," Gonzalez said. "We know what colors they wear. We know their behavior. We even know the vehicles."
He said confirmed gang members are targeted for immediate arrest if they violate any traffic laws, except speeding and open containers of alcohol.
After being check out by investigators, gang members' information is added to the state's GangScope database. The person's information stays there for three to five years depending on their further gang activity, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez has invited the South Texas Civil Rights Project to discuss the checkpoints with him.
"They're limited. They're not infringement upon anything," he said. "We cannot do general checkpoints."
Information from: The Monitor, http://www.themonitor.com