LAREDO, Texas (CN) – A South Texas rancher claims Border Patrol agents trespassed on his land two miles outside of their no-warrant search zone and installed a surveillance camera on a tree, before the Texas Rangers threatened to charge him with theft for not handing over the camera.
Richard Palacios, owner of Juan Salinas Ranch Ltd., sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Texas Ranger Division on Wednesday in Laredo federal court. He is represented by Laredo attorneys David Almaraz and Raul Casso.
Palacios says in the lawsuit that he and his son Richard Palacios Jr. live in separate homes on their ranch near Encinal, Texas, more than 25 miles north of the Mexico border, the Rio Grande.
The ranch’s distance from the river is key to Palacios’ case because federal agents don’t need a warrant to patrol on private land within 25 miles of a U.S. border.
Palacios says the closest distance he measured between his ranch and the Rio Grande is 27 miles, but Border Patrol agents he’s encountered several times traipsing through his land claim they are within their jurisdiction.
“On some occasions, the U.S. CBP agents insisted that they were within ’25 miles,’ within their rights, and bluntly told the plaintiff that they could therefore do what they wanted,” the complaint states.
Palacios claims his family’s feud with the Border Patrol goes back to April 4, 2010 at 1 a.m., when about 10 agents at a checkpoint 29 miles north of Laredo pulled his son Palacios Jr. out of his vehicle, body slammed him, handcuffed him and threw him in a holding cell after he refused to tell them where he lived.
Palacios says they released his son 90 minutes later, but other Border Patrol agents came calling at his ranch shortly thereafter.
At 3 a.m. that same night, Palacios claims, two or three Border Patrol agents parked their unmarked service truck, which had a camera mounted in its bed, at the front gate of his ranch.
“A confrontation ensued between plaintiff and his son, and the government agents with plaintiff and son ordering the agents off their property. Instead of complying with plaintiff’s order, a group of 8 to 10 more agents arrived apparently having been called as backup. … One agent, name unknown, challenged plaintiff to, ‘Make us leave,'” according to the complaint, which names as-yet-unidentified Border Patrol agents as defendants.
Palacios says a Border Patrol supervisor showed up, ordered the agents to take the camera down and got them to leave after talking to his son, Palacios Jr., about what his underlings did to Palacios Jr. at the checkpoint.
Over the last several years, Palacios alleges he has found Border Patrol agents “roaming freely about” on his ranch numerous times without a warrant and without any reason to be there.
He claims he complained about the trespassing in a letter to CBP, which told him it would look into it, but the trespassing continued, culminating with his discovery of a camera mounted on a tree on his ranch about two weeks ago.
Palacios says he took the camera down and is holding it as evidence.
“Subsequently, officials from U.S. CBP and the Texas Rangers each contacted plaintiff in turn, claiming ownership of the camera, demanded its immediate return, with the Texas Rangers threatening to file criminal charges for theft against plaintiff upon his refusal to surrender the camera,” the lawsuit states.
The rancher also filed a motion Wednesday asking for permission to give the camera to the court for safekeeping until the case is resolved.
Palacios’ attorney Casso said he believes his client has a strong case.
“Private property is one of our fundamental rights in this country and I think personal freedom really arises from private property,” he said in a phone interview.
Casso said he worked for four years as an assistant federal prosecutor in Laredo many years ago, and gained lots of experience because he was one of four federal prosecutors in the city when it had the busiest federal court docket in the country.
He said Laredo, the largest inland port of entry in the United States, has a large state and federal police presence. “Because of the magnitude of the port, it’s almost like a militarized zone,” he said.
Casso said the area needs Border Patrol officers, but sometimes they get carried away and the courts need to put them in their place.
“Because if they’re not, then they sort of snowball into that direction of doing whatever they want without any regards for the rights of individuals and the properties they’re trampling on, and the incidents with my client happened in the dark of night,” he said. “Confrontations in darkness at 3 in the morning. In-your-face type thing, ‘make me get off,’ and things like that. In that kind of circumstance things can get very ugly and anybody whose been on the pointed end of the government’s stick understands what this is about. … It hasn’t gotten as ugly as it potentially could have and that’s why we put the problem into the system so that it doesn’t get worse.”
CBP and the Texas Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment on the lawsuit. They both have policies of not commenting on pending litigation.
Palacios wants compensatory damages of $500,000 and punitive damages on trespass claims made under Texas state law. He also claims the agencies have violated his Fourth Amendment privacy rights.