Seven Days readers tell tales of mistaken identity, political profiling and harassment at Customs
Cuffed and Stuffed
I was coming back from Canada earlier this month after a shopping trip. When we got to the border, there were four of us in the car — me, my wife, her neighbor and her daughter. We handed them our papers, passports and such. Then the officer said to me, “Can I see your hands please.” I showed him my hands, and he asked me to step out of the car. Of course, I did.
After I got out of the car, there were about four guards that came out and asked me to walk backwards to the back of the car, and then put my hands on the back of the car. They frisked me and patted me down. I asked them what was going on, and they said, “This will all be over in a minute.” They told me to put my hands behind my back and put handcuffs on me. The officer asked me if I was comfortable and asked if I would please go into their office. As if I had a choice.
They brought me into an office. All four guards were with me. They said they couldn’t tell me why they were doing this. Then the four guards left me with one. About five minutes went by before they finally came back. I did ask the lone guard that was with me what this was all about. He said he couldn’t tell me. When the guards came back, they told me to stand up and that they needed to check me for drugs and weapons. One said, “We’re gonna take the handcuffs off and we’re gonna have to search you.” This time it was a little more thorough.
They asked if I had any tattoos. I said no. They asked if they could see my arms. I said sure. I unbuttoned my sleeves and rolled them up. They asked if I had any scars. They asked if there were any on my neck. They looked at my neck and saw no scars.
I again asked them what the deal was. They said they were looking for someone with my looks and my same name. They let me go to the lobby and sit down with my wife and my neighbor and their little girl. I’m not sure what they were doing during this time, but looking through our car would be my guess. After about 10 minutes, the guards came in and apologized for the inconvenience and said, “You can go on your way.”
I wasn’t real upset or anything. I was a little nervous at first, especially when they put the handcuffs on me. When they brought me in the office I was actually shaking, but I told myself I had nothing to worry about. It kind of made me feel good, in one sense, that they are trying to capture people. But on the other hand . . . if it does happen again, they said to tell the guard this has happened before, and maybe show him your forearms.
John asked that his last name not be used for this story.
Last month, I was driving back to Vermont from New York along Route 11 after dropping a friend off in Potsdam. I am not very familiar with that route, and it was very late. When I came across cones in the road, I thought it was for road construction and decided to drive through. I thought something was odd about the cones, and I actually stopped and read my map just before driving through them. When I drove partway through the cones and realized that I was approaching the border, I tried to turn around, which created some commotion at the Canadian border post. I explained that I had made a wrong turn and that I was looking for Vermont Route 78. They told me to turn left at the light and follow Route 2. They were incredibly nice and understanding about it, and let me turn around and be on my way.
Since I hadn’t actually gone into Canada, I didn’t realize that I still had to stop at the U.S. Customs checkpoint. (Huge error on my part, I realize now.) When I got to the Customs building, I slowed down at the stop sign and looked for someone to talk to. I didn’t see anyone, so I drove past. Someone then yelled stop, which I did immediately. I wasn’t even but a foot or two past the stop sign. The homeland security guard then yelled at me to get out of my car. When I tried to explain that I had made a wrong turn and hadn’t even gone into Canada, he told me to shut up and get out of the car. He just kept repeating that over and over.
We went inside the Customs building, where I again tried to explain that I had made a wrong turn. He wouldn’t listen. He then walked away, and another guard came in the room. He gave me a chance to explain what had happened. I asked him if he could simply call the Canadian border post and verify that I had just turned around at the border after getting lost. He said that he couldn’t do that. He also said that, because I had attempted to drive away from the checkpoint, they were reasonably suspicious of what my motivations were and [wondering] if I was involved in anything illegal.
At this point, the other guard came back and began interrogating me. Why was I there? What was I doing driving so late at night? Why was I in New York? Why was I driving to Vermont? Where do I live? Where had I visited in New York? How many miles is it between where I had dropped off my friend in New York and where we were now?
When I responded to him that I had simply made a wrong turn, and that America is a free country, and that I shouldn’t have to justify my right to drive late at night to him just because I had made a wrong turn, he got really angry with me and told me to sit down and calm down, and he walked away again (I think, to go search my car). The long and short of it was that, after threatening me with a $5000 fine for failure to stop at the customs building, they said that I should be thanking them for being so understanding, and they let me leave — after taking a photocopy of my driver’s license and writing down where I said I had been in New York.
I wonder if he was extra-difficult with me because I have “Iraq Veterans Against the War” and “Impeach Bush” bumper stickers on my car, which I saw him notice.
Kinne is a veteran of the Iraq war.
As we walked up to the building, I was pointing out things, and walked a few feet down the street on the U.S. side of the opera house. As we walked back to the car, the U.S. Customs station — about one block away from my car — sounded a siren, and an officer came outside, waving his hands to me. He yelled to me to “report to” the U.S. Customs right away. When we got there, I was told we were flagged down because we had “entered the U.S. from Canada” without reporting to U.S. Customs. I told him we had never gone into Canada. (We never even entered the Haskell Opera House.) The officer said we had tripped “sensors” placed next to or near the opera house — sensors probably hidden in a tree nearby.
So be warned: Don’t walk around the Haskell Opera House — most certainly not to its far side — unless you plan to stop at U.S. Customs immediately. And during intermission [at a show there], stay close to the front of the building!
I got stopped the summer before the 2006 election. I had a MoveOn.org bumper sticker, the one where the Republican [elephant] looks like a gas tank and its trunk is the gas spigot that you hold. It said “Grand Oil Party.” They really harassed me about it.
The [border agent] said to me, “Why were you in Montréal?” I said, “We were there on vacation.” And he said, “OK, and what were you doing there?” I told him. Then he said, “What does that mean, ‘Grand Oil Party’?” He was young — I would guess between 28 and 34 — shaved head, very authoritarian.
I said, “Excuse me?” I had my sunglasses on, so I took them off and looked him right in the eye and said, “Well, do you know what GOP stands for, Grand Old Party?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Do you know it stands for the Republican Party?” and he said, “Yes. So, what does that bumper sticker mean?”
I said, “The Republicans have stolen oil from Iraq and that’s the whole reason for this war, for power over oil.” And he said, “What?! Why were you in Montréal, again, and what were you doing there?” The tone he was using with me was very negative. I had a lot of other bumper stickers on there — Scudder Parker, Matt Dunne, “Renewable Energy Is Home-land Security” — so my leftist politics were quite clear.
He kept us there for more than 20 minutes. At first, I was surprised. It took my breath away a little. I was scared. And then I was getting angry. And the angrier I got, the more he pushed. I spoke in a very quiet but forceful voice, the way I had to speak to a student who was unruly and borderline violent.
We went through it the third time — “Where’d you stay? What were you doing? Why are you coming back today? How long were you there? And what does that bumper sticker mean?” As I got madder, I lectured him like he was the dummy in the class, in a very slow, patient voice. The strict teacher in me was coming out.
He finally says, “OK, you can go!”
I was ready for a real First Amendment fight, because I knew he didn’t have the right. You want to pull me over? You want to harass me? Go ahead, because my first call is going to be to an attorney in Burlington. That’s what was in my mind. He was so abrasive and so aggressive and so critical. I think it’s terrible.