US District Court Deals Blow to Interior Checkpoints, Overturns Activist’s “Federal Interference” Conviction
EL PASO TX – In early 2015, Michael Sophin of Florida was convicted of “forcibly interfering” with a federal (border patrol) agent, after casually driving away from an immigration checkpoint before he was officially free to leave.
Facing eight months in a federal prison, Sophin promptly appealed to the U.S. District Court of El Paso, arguing that the government failed to provide sufficient evidence that the act of driving away was a “forcible” act. The court agreed with Sophin and overturned his conviction which raises major questions as to whether or not interior immigration checkpoints have any legal footing in terms of enforcement.
In October of 2014, Sophin was driving back to Florida by way of El Paso, Texas, when he approached an “immigration checkpoint,” nearly 20 miles north of the Mexico border. With cameras rolling, Sophin recorded himself stopping at the checkpoint while declining to answer questions.
“Are you an American citizen?” the Border Patrol Agent asked as you can see in the video below.
Sophin replied, “You know, I was going to tell you that I wasn’t going to take any questions today, and then I realized that…as a matter of fact a girlfriend reminded me, that if Obama is letting everybody in the country, what difference does it make?
The Border Patrol Agent didn’t find much humor in the rather ironic joke and told him that answering his arbitrary citizenship question “makes all the difference.”
So the agent repeated the question a couple more times before Sophin responded.
“I don’t want to answer any questions, O.K.? Thanks. Have a good night” as he can be seen driving away from the checkpoint at a normal rate of speed.
The Agent can be heard saying, “Hey, you’re not free to go!”. He then alerted his comrades of Sophin’s early exit from the checkpoint as additional Agents can be seen getting into squad cars to make chase.
Court documents revealed that the border agents were traveling in excess of 130 miles per hour in order to catch up to Sophin. However, the border agents misidentified Sophins vehicle and ended up zooming past him at a dangerous speed. Eventually they realized their mistake, slowed down, and initiated a traffic stop on Sophins Dodge Magnum. The agents claimed that Sophin was “non-compliant” to their commands, however, he was taken into custody without incident.
The government initially charged Sophin with “High speed flight from immigration checkpoint” under Title 18 Section 758 of the Federal code, a felony which carries a sentence of up to 5 years in prison. However, when the authorities realized that their very own agents were the only ones traveling at a high rate of speed, they dropped that charge. Shortly thereafter, the government brought forward a lesser misdemeanor charge of “forcibly interfering with a federal agent.”
After convicting Sophin at trial, one juror said he voted guilty because “he should have to answer questions just like the rest of us.” Regardless, Sophin filed his appeal shortly after his conviction and was able to avoid his sentence of eight months in federal prison while awaiting the higher courts decision.
According to the District Court’s opinion, Sophin would have been granted a new trial due to the lower court allowing one of the border agents to make a legal conclusion on the stand. But that wouldn’t be necessary since the court overturned the conviction all together, seemingly based on the interpretation of the word “forcibly.” Since the lower court did not define the term to the jury, there was no basis to convict Sophin. The district court ruled that simply refusing to answer a federal agents questions, coupled with the act of driving away (in a safe manner) does not meet the legal threshold to charge him with forcibly interfering.
While Sophin did not merely refuse to cooperate, and instead drove away from Agent Mossman, there is no evidence that during the thirty-second encounter, Sophin used any force directed at Agent Mossman. See Gov’t Ex. I; Jury Trial Tr. 155:24-168:7.
In this case, there is no evidence that Sophin directed any force at Agent Mossman. See Gov’t Ex. I . Instead, Sophin pulled away from Agent Mossman while Agent Mossman’s head was turned. See id. at 168:8-9; Gov’t Ex. 2. Sophin did not attempt to run Agent Mossman over, did not “rev up his engine” or “take off, leaving tire marks,” and, as Agent Mossman himself confirmed, Sophin did not threaten or intimidate him. See id.; Jury Trial Tr. 167:18-168:2.
The Government argues that Sophin used his vehicle, a four-thousand pound Dodge Magnum, to “forcibly flee the checkpoint because [he] was enshrined in this 4-thousand pound box.” Appellee’s Br. 12, EP-15-CR-418-KC. However, there is no evidence that Sophin was accelerating rapidly, and when Sophin drove away, he did not attempt to run Agent Mossman over, threaten Agent Mossman, or “rev up his engine and take off, leaving tire marks” at the Checkpoint. Jury Trial Tr. 167:18-25, 168: I.
Agent Mossman did not “have to jump out of the way of Sophin’s car,” and he did not attempt to reach into Sophin’s car to try to grab the steering wheel. !d. at 168:3-7. None of the evidence demonstrates that Sophin’ s act of driving away from the Checkpoint in his Dodge Magnum was forceful. Even if Sophin’s behavior could be interpreted as forceful, no act was directed at Agent Mossman as it might have been, for example, had Sophin driven toward Agent Mossman’s person or otherwise used his vehicle or his person to interfere with Agent Mossman. Again, as Agent Mossman acknowledged, “[e]ssentially, [Sophin] pulled away.” /d. at I 68:8-9.6
We now have a case of an individual refusing to answer any questions from a border patrol agent, then driving off before he was verbally told he was “free to go,” and miraculously beat all the charges the government threw at him. So, assuming the government did their due diligence to find the most applicable charges in this situation, there is seemingly no legal teeth to stop anyone from repeating Sophin’s process (not legal advice). As long as the individual stops at the checkpoint, refuses to answer questions, then just drives away, there is no charge that could hold a conviction.
However, that doesn’t mean that border patrol will not still chase your vehicle at excessive rates of speed to violently apprehend you, lock you in jail, and steal your private property all so the government can keep their mirage of authority from being challenged. Proceed with caution.
Watch the original incident below