By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A civil rights group has demanded a federal probe into the operations at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints in Arizona, charging that agents routinely abuse their authority and violate the constitutional rights of local residents.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a complaint, demanded an intensive review of the policies and practices that govern these checkpoint operations scattered along the roadways near the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Many Border Patrol officials do not understand - or simply ignore - the legal limits of their authority at checkpoints," James Lyall, an attorney for the ACLU in Arizona, said in a letter on Wednesday to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.
Among the abuses cited in the complaint were extended interrogation and detention unrelated to determining a person's immigration status, unwarranted searches, racial profiling, verbal harassment and physical assault.
"Residents of southern Arizona are increasingly outraged by Border Patrol checkpoints, and for good reason," the complaint said.
A spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, which represents border agents throughout the nation, denied any wrongdoing at the checkpoints and said stops represent a minimal interruption for travelers in and around the border.
"We don't believe that agents are purposely and routinely violating people's constitutional rights," said Shawn Moran, vice president of the 17,000-member group, adding that the checkpoints have been approved by U.S. courts. "That's just not happening."
"A lot of the concern about these checkpoints is coming from activists, and it's the activists who are trying to provoke an incident," he said.
The complaint outlines the experiences of 15 U.S. citizens, ages 6 to 69, who were detained at six checkpoints in Arizona after dogs alerted agents to possible contraband.
Alleged misconduct included detaining a driver and a passenger in wire cages for 45 minutes, searching their car despite objections after a canine alerted to an adjacent vehicle, and pointing a gun at a driver, pulling him from a car and detaining him for the same amount of time after he would not answer questions unrelated to citizenship.
Another complaint alleges that agents threatened and assaulted a woman after she tried to record a search of her vehicle, upsetting her 6-year-old twins.
The group charged that immigration enforcement at many of the stops appeared to be a pretext for general criminal investigations. All the individuals cited were released and none were charged with a crime, Lyall said.
Michael Friel, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the checkpoints were a critical tool in securing the nation's borders.
"Our officers and agents are trained to recognize people and situations that present a potential threat or violation of law without regard to race," he said in a statement, adding that his agency does not tolerate racial profiling or misconduct.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)