A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at a traffic stop in the I-95 southbound lane between Howland and Lincoln Thursday evening, where CBP agents were questioning the citizenship status of drivers and passengers. Credit: Alex Acquisto

A checkpoint set up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents Wednesday on Interstate 95 led to the arrest of a fugitive Haitian immigrant who previously was ordered to be deported.

The random checkpoint, which was in place for 11 hours, stopped traffic in the southbound lanes between the Penobscot County towns of Howland and Lincoln. Several agents set up cones blocking the highway, and then asked vehicle occupants questions about their citizenship before letting them proceed. Southbound drivers could not avoid the roadblock.

“If you want to continue down the road, then yes ma’am. We need to know what citizen — what country you’re a citizen of,” an agent said Wednesday evening to two BDN reporters who went through the checkpoint. When questioned about what would happen if a driver declined to answer, he said the car would only be able to keep going if, after further questioning and upon the agent’s judgment, “the agent is pretty sure that you’re U.S. citizens.”

The Haitian man, who was not identified, faced an outstanding order of deportation that was issued in Florida more than a decade ago. He had been arrested previously on charges of drug possession, carrying a concealed weapon and for resisting an officer, CPB said. He will be turned over to Immigrations Customs Enforcement and Removal Operations.

In addition to the arrest during Wednesday’s checkpoint, CBP agents made 10 drug seizures and issued a formal warning to a male immigrant from the Philippines who was not carrying his green card, which is a violation, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Public Affairs Officer Steve Sapp.

These routine checkpoints have gone on for years. They are similar to the immigration checks that border agents are performing at Maine bus stops, where agents have been captured on video asking riders about their citizenship, said Stephanie Malin, a CBP spokeswoman.

In recent months, the bus stop checks have come under fire from the Maine American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the federal agency for records to learn more about the practice. Lawyers for the Maine ACLU said they have questions concerning “the intrusive operation,” and whether it infringes on the Fourth and Fifth amendment rights of bus passengers.

The legal advocacy organization has gone after highway checkpoints in the past, having previously requested records from the agency and calling them examples of government harassment, according to BDN archives.

On Wednesday, attorney Emma Bond said the Maine ACLU was also interested in learning more about the highway checks as it pursued records about the bus checks.

“People have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, whether at a bus station or on the road,” she said.

On Thursday, Sapp said the checkpoints are “designed to be minimally intrusive.”

“Agents ask simple questions and use their training, experience, and current intelligence to quickly make decisions on travelers citizenship or residency,” he said.

While travelers have the right to remain silent, Sapp said, those who refuse to cooperate during an inspection may be asked to pull away from the flow of traffic, so CBP agents can ask more questions to determine whether those inside a vehicle are legal citizens. Anyone who refuses could face charges, he said.

Malin declined to discuss the frequency, timing and location of checkpoints because they are “law enforcement sensitive.”

“Checkpoints are placed strategically to cover routes that smugglers use to make their way into the interior,” she said. “They allow for inspections of vehicles and occupants on specific roads or highways leaving the border area that are known by law enforcement to have a high volume or high likelihood of transnational smuggling activities.”

In 2010, a border patrol agent called I-95 an ideal location for immigration checkpoint operations because it is a “choke point” for people heading south from the Canadian border, according to BDN archives. Similar to an the explanation given at that time, an agent on Wednesday described the Howland stop as a “random checkpoint” to “see what we can catch.”

Last weekend in New Hampshire, border agents performed a similar check on Interstate 93, where they arrested five people who did not have legal immigration status, the agency said.

Agents in New Hampshire also seized drugs, including marijuana, marijuana edibles and THC vape oil during the stop, the agency said.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.