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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Supreme Court tosses drug convictions for man searched by federal agents at Stevens County border crossing

The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in this January 2019 photo. A man detained at the border crossing near Northport had his criminal drug convictions erased by the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday, after justices said his rights were violated by federal agents. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A unanimous Washington Supreme Court on Thursday tossed the drug convictions of a Florida man detained by federal agents at a crossing near Northport in August 2017.

Writing for the court, Justice Steven Gonzalez vacated felony charges of possession of heroin and LSD from the record of Alejandro Escalante. Escalante was riding in a van with three other people that was stopped at the crossing in Frontier following the Shambala electronic music festival in British Columbia. Gonzalez ruled his federal Miranda rights were violated by agents at the border crossing who found the drugs.

“Agents confiscated Escalante’s documents, routed him to a secondary inspection area, separated him from his belongings, arrested the driver of the van in which he was traveling, and detained him for five hours in a small locked lobby that was not accessible to the public or other travelers,” Gonzalez wrote in the opinion, signed by all nine justices of the state’s highest court.

Under those conditions, when the agents questioned Escalante about who owned a backpack containing drugs, they should have read him his rights to avoid self-incrimination.

The case could have implications for how federal authorities conduct what are considered routine stops of vehicles at the border and their decisions whether to notify local law enforcement of criminal activity, attorneys involved in the case said Thursday.

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection reached by email Thursday said the agency did not have immediate comment on the opinion.

Dennis Morgan, the Republic-based attorney who represented Escalante, said federal authorities should at the very least consider altering their procedures in the state moving forward, including reading the standard Miranda rights before asking questions.

“I think they thought they didn’t have to do that,” Morgan said, adding that he believed it was the first time a Washington state court had weighed in on the investigative activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The relationship between Washington and the federal agency responsible for policing the country’s border has become strained in the past several years. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has mounted legal challenges against the Department of Homeland Security following arrests of undocumented people at courthouses and the separation of migrant families at the borders of the country.

After Escalante admitted the backpack containing the drugs was his, federal agents contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which was disinterested in prosecuting the case because of the relatively small amount of drugs discovered, according to court filings. Stevens County deputies were informed of the search and arrested Escalante after reading him his rights, court records say.

Escalante was found guilty after his statement that he owned the backpack was permitted at trial. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail and ordered to pay fines totaling $1,850.

Morgan said Escalante was back with his family in Florida.

The Stevens County Prosecutor’s Office argued in court filings that the warnings did not have to be read because Escalante was not considered in custody when agents inquired about the backpack. But Morgan noted that Escalante, while detained, was not allowed to leave to use the bathroom or get a drink of water in the locked lobby where he waited during the search.

Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said Thursday his office was reviewing the ruling for a potential appeal.

“We are studying the decision and making a decision whether or not we will ask for review of this decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as it conflicts with established federal guidelines,” Rasmussen said.