Criminal Citations at the Border and On Federal Lands

I recently wrote an immigration practice advisory, entitled “Criminal Citations at the Border.” The article was originally published for the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Northwest Regional Conference last fall, and then re-published with slight modification by Lexis-Nexis in Bender’s Immigration Bulletin (June 1, 2024). Thanks to AILA and Benders for getting the word out.

The gist of the article is rather simple. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other Federal agencies with citation authority can issue minor or “petty offense” citations — which, in reality, may have major consequences for non-citizens. For example, a National Park Ranger can issue a citation to a camper for smoking cannabis in a national park. The citation will sometimes have a payment in lieu of appearance option, where the matter can be finalized for the payment of a small fine (e.g. $80). It is very easy to pay the fine, and be done with it, but then find out later that this was a big mistake.

We’ve seen more of these federal citations in the past couple years than ever before.

Examples #1: CBP issues violations for “Improper entry by Alien- 1st offense,” in violation of 8 USC § 1325(a)(3), for misrepresentations at the border.

Example #2: Border Patrol issues a citation for “Personal Possession of a Registration Receipt Card,” in violation of 8 USC 1304(e), for not having proof of status on one’s person.

Example #3: Park Ranger issues citation notice for a controlled substance violation on federal lands.

The back of the violation notice provides instructions for making payment online at or by mail to the Central Violations Bureau in San Antonio, Texas. The Central Violations Bureau is a national center operated by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. It processes U.S. District Court Violation Notices (tickets) issued and payments received for offenses committed on federal property, like national parks and military installations, or for violations of federal law that occur elsewhere.

The violation notice says:

“By paying the amount due, you may be admitting to a criminal offense, and a conviction may appear in a public record with adverse consequences to you. You have a right to know more about the charge against you and may obtain a complete statement of the charge by calling the Central Violations Bureau at 800-827-2982. By paying the amount due, you waive your right (1) to contest this violation notice, (2) to a trial, and (3) to be represented by counsel.”

The citation can be contested, and that may be the best thing to do sometimes, despite the hassle and expense. The strategy for defending a ticket will depend on the circumstances. In Washington State, it can be expected that the matter will be docketed with a U.S. magistrate in U.S. District Court on a once-per-month calendar. The Federal Government has dedicated counsel for this docket. Petty offense and misdemeanor charges can be defended against vigorously, with the full ambit of defenses (i.e. Constitutional rights). Avoiding immigration consequences is likely a major goal of any defense.

Rule 58 of the Federal Criminal Rules of Procedure provides the Federal Court procedures for misdemeanors and petty offenses, which these citations will likely fall under. However, local courts have their own rules. Aside from standard discovery, a Freedom of Information Act may be worthwhile, soon after the citation.

If a citation is paid, that may not be the end of the matter, but it is prudent to understand the immigration consequences of any guilty finding, especially before traveling internationally or filing an application with USCIS that may trigger further agency scrutiny.