Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Monopoly on Force

A leaked audio feed showed up on Youtube recently. It depicts a Canadian couple, apparently from Mississauga trying to enter the United States for a shopping trip. Listen to the whole thing and listen carefully.

I was going to simply repost but I feel that this situation is complex enough to warrant some discussion. I have known many people in law enforcement and worked for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (back when that existed) as a customs inspector so I have some insight.

Back to the audio stream. The officer on the line was clearly being belligerent. But anyone who crosses the border with any sort of frequency knows that you should expect that. So by answering so flippantly, the traveller should probably have expected to land himself in secondary. Once there, the officer interrogating him was quiet and reasonable. There are two things to note about that interview: 1) he was absolutely correct that no traveller has any rights when being detained at the border and 2) I find it extremely hard to believe that 3 terrorists a day are caught at the Port of Buffalo. If he'd said, "we arrest 3 middle-Eastern looking people every day at the Port of Buffalo" I would have been more inclined to believe it. But that's not what he said. So this sets him up as a probable liar.

Unfortunately, our friend the traveler remains agitated and presents the officer with some difficulty. Then some stuff happens with the wife and the audio stream gets a bit muffled. Presumably there is some kind of scuffle with the officers. It's entirely possible the audio clip has been edited here, but if we assume that it wasn't, then the most threatening thing the traveler said was, "what are you gonna do? shoot me?"

He is subsequently put in a cell and the superintendent tells him that he and his wife are going to jail because they have audio of the entire scene and the traveler has been recorded threatening. The first part is likely true, the second, if we assume the audio hasn't been tampered with, is not.

This is all quite reminiscent of the recent beating, trial and conviction of Peter Watts. Basically, customs inspectors started searching his car without so much as a "pleased-to-meet-you". When he got out to ask what was going on, he was beaten and pepper sprayed and thrown in a cell. All through the trial the customs people lied and contradicted their own statements but ultimately he was convicted because the obstruction law (which is mentioned in the audio feed above) includes a catch-all for failing to immediately obey a command from a border guard.

Now, there are lots and lots of good people in law enforcement. I have known some of them personally. But these types of positions tend to attract bullies. There seems to be a big difference in the types of bullies Canada and the US have in law enforcement. My evidence is, of course, all anecdotal or from personal (and therefore biased experience) and so should be taken with a grain of salt. Basically, the Canadian law enforcement bullies tend to be honest. The one glaring exception in my mind is the RCMP in the case of Robert Dziekanski. American law enforcement bullies, however, seem to have no qualms at all about perjuring themselves to defend their positions as evident in the Watts case above and as heard in the audio stream: 3 terrorists a day, we have a recording of you threatening us.

And all this is, I think, quite evident in the audio stream. The traveler says he's had intimate dealings with Canadian law enforcement. I think it would shock many Americans to hear that and then hear the way he talks to the border guards. But it's because he's used to Canadian law enforcement where, if you talk back, they will make your life a little more difficult for a little while, but you won't get beat up or be thrown in a cell for it.

I hope to hear more about where this audio stream came from. If it was a hoax, it was an elaborate one. I also want to know what the outcome of all this is/was/will be. I suspect that this will turn out much like the Watts case: US border guards will lie and lie and lie and then get a conviction because of the catch-all clause in the obstruction law.


Andrew said...

I've always disliked the charge of "Obstruction of Justice" when you consider that the arresting party is allowed to decide what actions "serve justice."

On topic with the issue of changes in our piracy laws, etc., one can see how selectively enforceable laws which everyone is guilty of, are REALLY great tools for police to use as a shield against good, honest citizenry whilst abusing their own position of authority.

Law enforcement deserves no respect at an individual level per se. That is not the point. Respect should only be heeded for the law itself. People are supposed to resist abuse of authority, for that is a far worse crime against society than 'obstruction of justice.' In this example, the officer DID abuse authority, because he used his position of power to single out the visitor who didn't respect his questions.

It should be stated, that it is not illegal to mock an officer, but frighteningly, they have enough power to turn it into a crime. You do not need to commit any crime to go to jail if so singled out.

In this case, the officials at the border shouldn't have the right to force someone to answer questions they do not wish to answer. They can conduct a search, and deny them entry to the USA; they should not be able to force them to speak to an officer unless the individual wishes to do so to improve the situation.

If a person is going to be detained, the authority carrying out that detention must provide substantive reason for it. Without good reason, including citation of the law which the individual has broken, the act of holing a person in 'custody' becomes unlawful confinement, and should be treated as such.

Some would say this is hampering the "ability of law enforcement to do their job" ... But what is their job? If carrying out their job means violating the very laws they apparently are in place to uphold, I really believe we need to investigate the value of the institution all together.

Justin said...

I wonder a few things.
1. If there was some sort of gesture during the muffled part of the audio after which the Border Guards start to ask if he's threatening them, there's no audible threat on this audio.
2. If three "possible terrorists" are arrested each day around the entire border of the United States and daily information given to all the US Border Guards is the source of that number. I agree I can't believe there are three at the port of Buffalo every day. Maybe three people are arrested daily at Buffalo (drugs, priors, etc.) but three on terrorist charges? Really?
3. What sort of daily and longer timeframe updates and indoctrination is being presented to the US Border Guards. A lot of the talk on this audio sounds like the Guards are being fed a very biased set of stories from around the country, likely with incomplete background on many of them. I've noticed this at my border crossings in the last three years or so. The US Guards are acting more and more like they honestly believe that the United States is under some sort of assault. I would love to see what sort of "industry insider news" they are presented with on a regular basis to build this belief. I will ask around to the people I know here and see if I can find out any more about this.

From the clip:
"We don't need any grounds."
"Well that's ridiculous."
"Okay, that's the United States."
. . . .
"You don't need any grounds for your actions?"
"Absolutely not."

This is true, and that is the scariest thought for anyone planning to cross the US border anytime starting about five years ago.