After failing to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, a South Carolina man has pleaded guilty to illegally mailing firearms to the Virgin Islands.
The case began on March 30, 2017, when Baxter, who lived in Orangeberg, S.C., shipped two firearms to an individual on St. Thomas in violation of federal law, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
A Customs and Border Protection dog discovered the first firearm during routine inspection of incoming mail to St. Thomas, and two days later, a U.S. Postal Inspection officer discovered the second firearm while sorting mail inside the post office, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert.
Baxter filed a motion to suppress the firearms as evidence in 2018, arguing that federal authorities needed a search warrant to inspect mail sent to the Virgin Islands.
During a court hearing, one of the officers testified that “CBP officials regularly open packages sent from the mainland United States to the United States Virgin Islands without warrants because the CBP has ‘border search authority’ under those circumstances.”
When former U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez asked why federal agents didn’t simply get a warrant to search the package, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Vlasova argued that “as law enforcement strategy and tactic, there is no warrant requirement,” according to court records.
Gomez was unpersuaded by that reasoning, and issued a 42-page opinion explaining why, when it comes to Constitutional protections, Virgin Islanders are no different from mainland residents.
“The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution has protected individuals from unreasonable warrantless searches since its existence,” and has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court “as extending to sealed mail among and between United States residents within United States territory,” Gomez wrote. “To the extent that the Fourth Amendment applies in the United States Virgin Islands, does it exist in some hybrid form such that its protections fade, to some degree, merely because a sealed package originating in the United States mainland arrives in the United States Virgin Islands?”
Gomez said the federal agency seemed to be suggesting that the Virgin Islands should be treated differently under the law, and the practice of warrantless package searches “elevates expediency over the Constitution in a way it admittedly would never do in a state or Puerto Rico, and it does so unlawfully.”
Prosecutors appealed, and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Gomez’s decision on Feb. 21, 2020.
The appellate judges cited case law from 1994, United States v. Hyde, which “established the applicability of the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment at the customs border between the mainland United States and the Virgin Islands,” according to court records.
At international borders, U.S. Customs agents don’t have to get a judge to sign a warrant before conducting searches of people and property attempting to cross, as the government’s interest in preventing smuggling “outweighs the individual’s privacy interest,” according to the appellate judges’ opinion.
While “the border between the United States and the Virgin Islands is neither an international boundary nor its functional equivalent,” the appellate judges found, “we decided the rationale of the Supreme Court’s international border-search cases applies with equal force at the customs border that Congress established between the mainland United States and the Virgin Islands.”
Baxter sought to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue, but was denied on Jan. 25, ending his ability to pursue further appeals.
Baxter — who remains in jail at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico — faces a maximum sentence of 60 months in prison after pleading guilty. Prosecutors said in the plea agreement that they will recommend a sentence of time served and three years of supervised release, and a judge could order Baxter to pay a fine of between $20,000 and $200,000 under sentencing guidelines.