The often delicate balance between civil liberties and law enforcement’s goal of public safety is playing out in San Juan.
The target in between: gang members.
For more than a year now, San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez said his department has conducted checkpoints at certain locations in direct response to crimes investigators believe are gang-related. The criminal element — such as the Texas Chicano Brotherhood that rivals the older Tri-City Bombers gang, the Po’Boys and the Vallucos — has long plagued the Pharr, San Juan and Alamo area.
At a San Juan checkpoint, most cars attempting to pass through are stopped. Passengers are questioned and, in certain instances, individuals are asked by investigators to voluntarily submit to having photographs taken of their gang-affiliated tattoos. The information is then vetted for inclusion in a state database.
The chief describes the checkpoints as a “non-conventional, but legal investigative approach” that amounts to only a small portion of a larger initiative to curtail gang activity.
“We’re not targeting any innocent people here,” he said.
Still, organizations like the South Texas Civil Rights Project, based in Alamo, have questioned whether the enforcement activity could potentially be a violation of the Fourth Amendment that keeps people free from unreasonable search and seizure.
“That certainly raises that alarm that what they're doing could be unconstitutional,” STCRP lawyer Joseph Martin said. “Police have always been pressing against restrictions the Constitution puts on protecting rights of individuals.”
‘WE KNOW WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR’
In Texas, police are prohibited from conducting roadblocks to check for drivers under the influence. However, city police sometimes perform checks for insurance, seatbelts and driver’s licenses in places like Corpus Christi, for example.
In San Juan, the purpose of the checkpoints is two-fold: checking for those types of violations and gathering intelligence to enter into the state’s GangScope database.
San Juan police, along with Hidalgo County Precinct 2 constables and narcotics K-9s, set up their operation following a drive-by shooting near the intersection of Seventh Street and King Road during a Thursday night in October this year.
A few cars in, at 3rd Street and Maldonado Drive, a man self-identified as a member of “La Eme,” the notorious Mexican Mafia prison gang, police said. Officers on site asked him to remove his shirt so they could take photos of 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 known gang members are targeted for immediate arrest if they are found to be in violation of any traffic laws, with the exception of speeding and an open container.
Police went out again in December on a Friday night to an area where they believe a family was shot at by gang members in October. They set up in the parking lot of Sorensen Elementary on Sam Houston Blvd.
Nearby residents gathered, curious as to what was going on.
Ray Reyes, who lives directly across from Sorensen Elementary, said officers told them it was driver’s license checkpoint, but hadn’t mentioned they were targeting gang members.
“This is kind of not normal; all these cops, especially like undercover and then to have the mobile command center,” Reyes said, adding he appreciated the police presence, but would like them to respond to calls more quickly.
IS IT LEGAL?
The San Juan police chief said he invited the STCRP to discuss concerns about the checkpoints this month after they filed an open records request.
STCRP lawyer Joe Martin said police enforcement activity often pushes against civil rights, calling it “a constant pressure people need to be aware of.”
On face value, he said he doubted the constitutionality of the checkpoints and photographing people for inclusion in the GangScope database. He also said the STCRP encourages anyone affected by these checkpoints to contact the organization.
“There's basic constitutional issues involved, obviously the Fourth Amendment,” he said.
Martin said a checkpoint with the purpose detecting criminal activity is unconstitutional, problematic in the case of the gang checkpoints because they focus on gang membership.
Additionally, it can be a slippery slope that leads to profiling, particularly based on race, he said. A member of the public is often hard pressed to deny the request of a police officer, even if inclusion in the database is voluntary, he added.
“On the base of it, it seems highly questionable on whether this kind of checkpoint is constitutional,” Martin said.
He could not be reached for further comment about STCRP’s meeting with the San Juan police chief by press time.
Still, the San Juan police chief is adamant the checkpoints fall within the parameters of the law.
“They’re limited. They’re not infringement upon anything,” he said. “We cannot do general checkpoints.”
Gonzalez said the initiative has been evaluated by the city’s legal department and police take steps to plan the checkpoints well in advance using their own intelligence.
He said anyone stopped also has the right to refuse being photographed. Though, in general, he said gang members are willing to self-identify.
“I can tell you 99 percent of the people we stop, they actually tell us they’re with whatever gang,” Gonzalez said.
He explained it’s a lengthy process to submit data to GangScope; officers corroborate claims and individuals must meet certain qualifiers. Once in the database, the information stays for a period of three to five years depending on further gang activity, he said.
The chief said he hasn’t received any complaints from average citizens nor requests for removal from the database.
Though at first he said the checkpoints were done monthly, he said the actual tally over the past year and a half is just two or three operations that have averaged 8 to 10 arrests.
“It’s a good thing that we’re doing in the PSJA area, especially there in San Juan, because we’ve got a lot of gang activity,” the chief said.
Jacqueline Armendariz covers law enforcement, courts and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4434.