Illegal border crossings

With a guilty verdict delivered last week against Peter Watts, a Canadian writer, adds something unexpected and dangerous to any journey out of the United States, and particularly so to exiting the country by car.

First, US border guards now do exit searches — which is to say that your car might be searched on the way out of the United States. I have no idea why the United States is worried about you transporting things out of their country and into Canada — traditionally, that would be Canada’s problem — nor do I have the first clue regarding what they might be looking for. But they’re looking for something. Maybe trouble.

Second, while they are supposed to inform you that they are searching your vehicle, apparently they did not in this case. You might suddenly find border guards going through your things.

Third, if you dare to ask questions about this, you might get punched in the face. That certainly happened to Mr. Watts.

Finally, if, after getting punched in the face, you take to long to obey a border guard’s instructions, you can be convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison for two years. For simply failing to obey an instruction quickly enough.

All of the above are what happened to Peter Watts — you can find his initial take on the verdict here, with further information in this follow-up post.

The most amazing part is a quote from a juror, taken from the Times-Herald:

As a member of the jury that convicted Mr. Watts today, I have a few comments to make. The jury’s task was not to decide who we liked better. The job of the jury was to decide whether Mr. Watts “obstructed/resisted” the custom officials. Assault was not one of the charges. What it boiled down to was Mr. Watts did not follow the instructions of the customs agents. Period. He was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his non compliance. He’s not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination. The customs agents escalated the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication. Unfortunately, we were not asked to convict those agents with a crime, although, in my opinion, they did commit offenses against Mr. Watts. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so we had to follow the instructions as set forth to us by the judge.

And from another juror:

He was found guilty of obstructing/resisting, and that was due to the time that transpired between him being ordered to do something and him actually complying with the order. We were forced to decide what was a reasonable amount of time for him to comply with an order. Mr. Watts, in my opinion, was treated unfairly by Customs and Border Protection. But, unfortunately, they were not on trial.

In other words, beware of border crossings.

6 thoughts on “Illegal border crossings

  1. For (somewhat) obvious reasons, I am fascinated by this story… This is the first I’ve read about it.

    I will say, I did see exit searches while I was working at Lansdowne. I can’t comment on anything else until I read accounts of the events themselves, if they’re out there.

  2. I’ve done some reading (I was in the process of reading extensively when I first commented).

    I want to link to an image…

    If a subject (read: “traveler”) is compliant, then Officer Presence and Communication are the appropriate levels of incident management. That is, we speak to you, there are a few of us around, we’re telling you what is going on, and you’re letting us do our job. If we do anything more than that, we’ve overstepped our bounds.

    The chart isn’t an “either or” thing. At any stage of the subject’s attitude (be it compliant to aggressive) Communication and Officer Presence are appropriate responses (if they get the job done). The lowest level of intervention that resolves the situation is the appropriate intervention.

    From what I’ve read about the Peter Watts incident, they didn’t even communicate that the search was happening. “Isn’t it obvious,” doesn’t apply here. I’m not saying that being searched on exiting a country is unreasonable (because it is perfectly reasonable), but I know from my own (albeit limited) experience on the Canadian side that we always communicate with the traveler what we are doing first. Their being non-compliant doesn’t affect that: we aren’t really asking permission, but there are fewer chances for the situation to get out of hand if everyone’s at least reading from the same script.

    That said, if he stepped out of the car and did not comply with the direction to return to the car, he is resistant. At which point, even in Canada, there’s a possibility of physical confrontation — either being manipulated with arm bars and holds, being punched, or being subject to OC Spray. (Although that’s only above-board if they are ACTIVELY resistant — essentially moving to not-comply… maybe in the States, moving out of the car to not comply is the same thing? My understanding is that American agencies use the same wheel.)

    The other thing that I found odd, while reading the boingboing article, was that he went through the whole thing up until receiving bail without legal representation. That strikes me as a violation of Watts’ Vienna Convention rights… or a failure of the Canadian consul in supporting a foreign national in a spot of difficulty.

  3. martin :
    I’m not saying that being searched on exiting a country is unreasonable (because it is perfectly reasonable).

    Martin — I think I have to disagree here. I cannot understand the rationale behind searching individuals leaving the United States en route to Canada. I can understand Canada searching people on entry, but I have yet to think up a good reason to search people on exit at the US/Canada border. Although I will admit to not having done much research on it.

    As for the resistance thing, I encourage you to read the two posts from Mr Watts, above – which appear to be corroborated by the jurors. Essentially, in the end, the prosecution and defense agreed on the facts of the matter and Watts was convicted of refusal to obey because he did not obey immediately when an order was given after he was punched in the face.

    It strikes me that the officers in this case confused the accused, who then asked questions. The officers then escalated a peaceful situation and made it violent. Then they arrested Mr. Watts for being the victim of the violent conflict that they started. And he was found guilty.

    It is all flabbergasting to me … and cannot possibly be the way that the system is meant to work.

  4. Reasons why you might want to search people on exit: 1) crime occurred nearby and you anticipate them attempting to reach the border rather than being arrested. 2) amber alert. 3) frequent problems with a particular crossing (port, point of entry) and contraband smuggling. That’s just three off the top of my head at 5am. From a homeland security perspective, there are probably more. From where I’m seated, they all come back to criminal activity of one sort or another that the authorities wish to check.

    I read the SquidGate posts before posting my reply. And his friend’s post. And his other friend’s post on boingboing. And the globeandmail. And the star. The problem is that there isn’t, an any one of the posts, a clear timeline established for what happened. What I read is that he gets to the border, there are fists involved, he is in his car or out of his car, he gets sprayed then arrested.

    Clearly my own confusion over the timeline stems from the sources I read. The first three are all aligned with the victim and the second two are apparently cribbing information from an unreliable media outlet. So, when I read critically, I am stuck in a situation where every narrative is unreliable.

    Was he punched in the face before or after getting out of the car? I can’t imagine a situation where he would have been punched before exiting the car, but I can imagine a lot of situations where, having stepped from the car and daring to question the uniformed folks rooting through his belongings… Believe it or not, the timing of this is important.

    I am convinced that there was an abuse of power on the part of the US CBP officers, no matter the order of events. They might have been looking for an excuse to intervene (sometimes peace officers/law enforcement seek out situations where they can be hardasses — sport referees do the same thing with significantly less power).

    I am, however, certain that the US system is meant to allow for this sort of thing. The laws that came after 9/11 gave authorities extensive powers. It has only been with hesitation that I’ve entered the US since that time, and I’m a Canadian citizen without a criminal record (of any sort, nevermind pardoned or not) and no ties to terrorism, etc. I recently crossed at Sarnia going into the US and I found the CBP officer to be more or less like a polite and efficient CBSA officer. Now, I’m kind of glad I chose to come back via Windsor…

    As far as the Watt situation goes? The sense I get from the various things I’ve read on the matter is that the jury, the defense, and the Squid compatriots all feel that he was ill-served by the law as it is written.

  5. Watts’s own version of events, in several blog entries has him leaving the car before being punched — I would imagine this is most likely true, as it seems more likely.

  6. martin :
    Reasons why you might want to search people on exit: 1) crime occurred nearby and you anticipate them attempting to reach the border rather than being arrested. 2) amber alert. 3) frequent problems with a particular crossing (port, point of entry) and contraband smuggling.

    I think my problem with this stems from my belief that, in the United States, a search requires a warrant, permission, or some serious probable cause. As this instant was a “random search” and nobody informed Watts, it was illegal.

    So, short of having some serious cause to want to search a particular vehicle (and I have my doubts that any of the three examples you cite are sufficient), or being ready with a warrant, I would think that border officers need permission to search the vehicle on exit.

    That permission might be easily attained, but a US enforcement agency operating within the US is, I think, supposed to operate by the rules.

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