If you want to know how Jessica Cooke ended up on her back, screaming in pain as the barbs from a stun gun delivered incapacitating electricity into her body, there are several possible answers. You could say this indignity was caused by her own stubbornness, her refusal to comply with the seemingly arbitrary dictates of a Border Patrol agent who was detaining her for no apparent reason at an internal immigration checkpoint in upstate New York. Or you could blame the agent’s insistence on obeisance to his authority, which led him to assault an unarmed 21-year-old woman who posed no threat to anyone. But the ultimate responsibility lies with the Supreme Court, which has invited this sort of confrontation by carving out a disturbing and dangerous exception to the Fourth Amendment.
On May 7, two days before she graduated from SUNY Canton with a degree in law enforcement leadership, Cooke was driving from Norfolk to her boyfriend’s house in Ogdensburg when she was stopped by the Border Patrol on Route 37 in Waddington. That town sits just across the St. Lawrence River from Canada. Although Cooke had not crossed the border and did not plan to do so, she became subject to the Border Patrol’s authority merely by driving on Route 37, thanks to a 1976 decision in which the Supreme Court said the government may randomly stop cars on “important roads leading away from the border” in an effort to catch illegal immigrants. In U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, the Court deemed this imposition “minimal,” saying “all that is required of the vehicle’s occupants is a response to a brief question or two and possibly the production of a document evidencing a right to be in the United States.’”
Cooke’s experience, which she recorded with her cellphone, was rather different. After she was directed to a “secondary inspection area,” a male agent who identified himself as a supervisor told her she would have to wait “a couple of minutes,” because “we’ve got a K-9 coming.” When she asked why she was being detained, he had no answer. Later the female Border Patrol agent who first interacted with her said Cooke seemed nervous—an all-purpose excuse for detaining someone, since people tend to be nervous when confronted by armed government agents. At this point Cooke had already identified herself as a U.S. citizen and presented her driver’s license (which is the only form of ID that motorists are legally required to carry), so there was no rationale for holding her that had anything to do with immigration control.