Valley lawmaker questions DPS checkpoints

Texas State Rep. Terry Canales // File Photo

A Rio Grande Valley lawmaker is questioning a series of random checkpoints that have created fear among rural Hidalgo County residents.

Texas State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) submitted a list of questions about the checkpoints to Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Executive Director Steve McGraw.

DPS announced two weeks ago that it would be deploying a surge of state troopers to the Valley in order to improve several public safety issues.

The agency said it would be setting up checkpoints on state roadways to check motorists for driver licenses, auto insurance and vehicle registration.

The checkpoints started on Sunday, September 15th on rural roads in Hidalgo County creating panic among residents in colonia and poor neighborhoods.

Immigration attorneys and activists with La Union Del Pueblo Entero are concerned that the checkpoints are creating fear among illegal immigrants.

Many have reportedly cancelled doctor appointments and stopped taking their American-born children to school.

DPS Checkpoints

DPS maintains that state and federal courts uphold the legality of the checkpoints and that state troopers are not using them to ascertain immigration status.

But the agency said drivers passing through the checkpoints undergo a quick and routine arrest warrant check.

Those violating drivers license, auto insurance or vehicle registration laws may be ticketed.

Anyone committing a crime such as DWI at the checkpoint could also face arrest.

Lawmaker's Concern

But Canales said he's concerned that the random checkpoints only seem to be placed in economically disadvantaged areas.

The DPS has not been able to explain how these checkpoints will actually benefit Hidalgo County, said the District 40 state representative in a statement. They say these checkpoints will only be in place for a short duration. If it is only for a short duration, what will the actual long-term effect of these checkpoints be? It seems to imply that these checkpoints are going to have very little positive, long-term effect.

Canales said that he's concerned that the checkpoints run a high risk of violating the civil rights of South Texans.

Terri Burke with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas believes when a law enforcement agency announces a "crackdown," that civil liberties violations often follow.

"We have already heard from residents that the checkpoints are targeting low-income neighborhoods and colonias," Burke wrote in a statement. "And we have reports that DPS is using the checkpoints to engage in the enforcement of federal immigration law. These reports are alarming, given that DPS claims the checkpoints are about traffic safety. We are investigating the situation to find out the truth.

Social Media

Valley residents are mixed about the checkpoints with many supporting them and others opposing them.

A number of Facebook pages have been created over the past few days in favor of and against the checkpoints.

The We Support Checkpoints in Texas Facebook page is approaching 100 fans.

Two Spanish-language Facebook pages to report checkpoints both have more than 37,000 fans.

An English-language page "RGV DPS Random Checkpoints" now has more than 18,000 fans.

Some 100 people have already joined a new Reportes de Retenes 956 Original on the walkie-talkie mobile phone app Zello.

Zello users are leaving real-time messages of checkpoints that they see while others ask if there are any on their driving route.

List of Questions

Action 4 News has obtained a list of questions that Canales submitted to DPS: What are the locations that have already had checkpoints set up and over what time frame were those checkpoints active? How many troopers are currently stationed in Hidalgo County and how does this compare with the rest of the state? How many troopers are being deployed for this program? How many DPS trooper man hours are being utilized on these checkpoints? What is the expected cost to the taxpayers for this operation? How many troopers have been brought into Hidalgo County and how does this affect other communities in Texas? Can we get a complete list of federal, state and local agencies that are involved in these operations? Who initiated this checkpoint operation and on what basis? Please provide scientific or verifiable data that rises to the level to initiate this operation. Law enforcement has identified various criminal activities and unsafe driving behaviors in south Texas, according to the DPS announcement. Can you provide us data that illustrates increased criminal activities, unsafe driving behaviors, vehicle crashes, and the increase of commercial vehicles operating on the roadways? What measured effect if any have the checkpoints had on the alleged problems cited by DPS? How many citations and arrests have resulted from the program so far? You have also stated that, DPS began this operation on September 16 and will continue for a short duration. What constitutes a short duration according to DPS? Are cars being stopped only randomly? We have heard reports from constituents that these checkpoint stops seem to be focused on economically disadvantaged drivers. According to your agency, what constitutes a suspicious vehicle? In setting up these checkpoints, is DPS attempting to take over tasks that are best left to the federal government?

DPS Statement

DPS issued a statement early Thursday afternoon In response to "mischaracterizations and false information" being reported in the media regarding regarding the checkpoints.

The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is providing the following information to address those inaccuracies:

Law enforcement identified various criminal activities and unsafe driving behaviors in south Texas that led to the launch of a short-term, multi-agency law enforcement effort in the Rio Grande Valley.

Regarding driving behaviors: In 2010, 2011 and 2012, a three-county area (Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy) in the Rio Grande Valley led the state in the number of citations DPS issued to drivers for no driver license; and the same area is second only to the Houston area for no insurance citations issued by DPS during the same time period. In fact, 15 percent of all DPS-issued no driver license citations in the state occurred in the same three counties in the Rio Grande Valley in 2012. These numbers do not include citations issued by local law enforcement officers.

Some uninformed individuals have claimed that these checkpoints are illegal " which is false. A traffic regulatory checkpoint is, in fact, an authorized law enforcement strategy that has been held to be constitutionally permissible by the U.S. Supreme Court (City of Indianapolis v Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 2000) and by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Lujan v. State, 331 S. W. 3d 768, 2011). DPS conducts traffic regulatory checkpoints under its general authority to enforce the laws protecting public safety.

Traffic regulatory checkpoints are used only for the purpose of determining compliance with specific regulatory traffic statutes, including failure to display a driver license, failure to maintain financial responsibility, as well as vehicle safety and registration requirements. If a violation is found, a citation or warning is issued, and warrant checks are conducted. Other obvious criminal violations can also be addressed; for example, driving while intoxicated.

The goal of enforcing traffic regulatory compliance is to make the roadways safer for all travelers.

Regulatory checkpoints have not and will not be used to ascertain immigration status. Moreover, reports that Border Patrol agents are present at these checkpoints are blatantly false. The individuals making these allegations are doing a disservice to the public by spreading inaccurate information to their communities and unnecessarily alarming the public.

No immigration arrests have been made at any of the traffic regulatory checkpoints; however, there have been a number of citations for no driver license, no insurance, no seat belts, and no/improper vehicle registration.

No law-abiding drivers should be concerned with traffic regulatory checkpoints if they are in compliance with the traffic laws and carrying insurance on their vehicles.

The majority of drivers in Texas value and obey traffic laws, and carry insurance on their vehicles, as they understand the significant consequences of being involved in an automobile crash with a driver who is uninsured and unlicensed.

DPS Director Steven McCraw has personally spoken with members of the Texas Legislature about this important law enforcement initiative, including the regulatory checkpoints, and he has invited lawmakers to visit the Rio Grande Valley to observe these checkpoints firsthand, especially for those who have been provided false and misleading information.

DPS appreciates those government officials who support law enforcement in their efforts to ensure safe and secure roadways for all Texans.

DPS will release a summary of results, including regulatory checkpoint statistics, following the conclusion of this multi-agency law enforcement initiative.

Drivers who do not comply with traffic laws not only put themselves in danger but also risk the lives and safety of innocent individuals. Unfortunately, law-abiding Texans are often forced to suffer the physical and financial consequences when others fail to adhere to driver license, insurance or vehicle safety requirements, said Director McCraw.

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