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What happens when you refuse to answer a passport control officer's questions (knifetricks.blogspot.com)
463 points by abraham on Sept 11, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 281 comments

Contrarian viewpoint - you're dealing with humans with emotions, and they deserve some respect on that human level. If you want to take a moral stand against encroachment of civil liberties, I respect that. But why not be polite? "I apologize, sir, but I'm morally opposed to answering questions beyond what I have to. I'll comply with the legal requirements to enter the country, but I don't answer questions I'm not legally required to on principal - I think it's no good."

You're much less likely to have trouble that way, and it explains why you're doing what you're doing, which makes it more likely to have a positive impact and get the officers to re-think why they're doing their job and what it means. Stonewalling them is your legal right, fine, but it seems to be a sub-optimal choice on a principals/ethics level and on a practical level. Now before anyone replies, "You shouldn't have to bow and scrape to get into your own country" - yes I agree with you, but being rude doesn't accomplish anything additional than stating your principals politely.

He answered to all of your points in the follow-up post, which was prominently linked to the top of the post submitted here.

Thanks, I missed that link somehow. But I think he's wrong about this:

> 5. Politeness Would Make No Difference.

That's not true at all in my experience. After lots of international traveling, I've found the optimum is, "Good afternoon officer, how are you?" while handing my passport over. Maybe ask about the local sports teams. They're much friendlier and cooler when you do so. This is my empirical observation on my part after dozens if not hundreds of border crossings - it does make a difference; the author is mistaken. I respect his principals, but I think adding politeness would be more pragmatic and serve his goals of establishing civil liberties more effectively.

In order to be polite, you have to speak. The instant you start speaking, anything you say can be held against you in a court of law. His primary position is that in speaking, you've instantly jeopardized yourself and set yourself up for criminal charges. He is a lawyer - and shows how even answering the question "Business or Pleasure" - sets you up for a large number of criminal charges - REGARDLESS of whether you tried your best to answer them honestly.

It's basically the same position you should always take with a police offer who is trolling (as opposed to performing actual police work) - Always refuse to answer anything but the most basic questions such as your identity, always (always) refuse to consent to a search.

This is one of those libertarian "25 laws you break in the process of squeezing your own orange juice in the morning" principles that is fun to argue about but not very useful in the real world.

The reality is that while personality flaws and broken power dynamics may (but almost certainly won't) cause border police to charge you with some crime if you misstate "business or pleasure", absent any demonstrable intent of comitting a crime, you're unlikely to see the inside of a courtroom on such a charge, let alone be convicted. For instance, in the original post: saying you were in Antwerp for pleasure isn't going to get you a "Bureau of Prisons Number" without the satchel of smuggled diamonds.

I don't want to be misconstrued here; I'm glad we have crazy douchebags like this guy to stand up for our rights to refuse to answer questions, especially dragnet-style questions explicitly intended to trip criminals (and whatever collateral innocents come with them) up at the border.

But having said that, there's an element of the social contract at play here. The exact same logic this guy is using suggests that he also shouldn't answer the questions of police investigating crimes in his neighborhood. "Have you seen this man? We think he just shot up your neighbor's car."

Our society doesn't work if the police get absolute authority over us, and our protections against authoritarianism will degrade if people like this guy don't occasionally stand up for them. But society also won't work if everyone routinely refuses to cooperate with the police, who are dependent on our support to get the important stuff in their charter done.

I highly recommend "Cop in the Hood", a sociologist's writeup of a year spent as a Baltimore East Side patrol cop, for insight into all the crazy dynamics at play here.

> But having said that, there's an element of the social contract at play here. The exact same logic this guy is using suggests that he also shouldn't answer the questions of police investigating crimes in his neighborhood. "Have you seen this man? We think he just shot up your neighbor's car."

I believe this is different. In this case, true, you have no legal obligation to answer a cop's questions when he is investigating a crime. But I do think you may possibly have a moral obligation and answering his questions is part of your civic duty.

However, I don't really see any such obligation here when they are treating you as the suspect. There is no concrete reason for them to suspect you in the first place, other than their blind, blanket suspicion of everyone.

I agree. This guy is trying to apply an abstract principal to something that in reality doesn't really make any sense.

However, I don't think they have a blanket suspicion of everyone.

It's pretty clear to me that people like the border patrol, or anyone else who has a similar job of trying to find that needle in the haystack, the one person they should rightfully be suspicious of, is looking for certain telltale signs: dark skin, non-affluent dress and/or nervous behavior.

Do you really think they have a blind suspicion of everyone? The vast majority will go through with minimal questioning, and these types of questions try to tease out suspicious behavior. I don't think it's a "you are guilty by default" type situation.

How would you rather the border patrol act? Keep in mind there are various types of illicit behavior that are not desired within society--this is a fairly inevasive method all things considered.

> Do you really think they have a blind suspicion of everyone?

They certainly act as though they are suspicious of everyone.

Isn't being suspicious of everyone the rational response? You see thousands of people per year and your entire job is to identify the few who are doing something wrong (smuggling, using a false passport, whatever).

If you're not going to be suspicious of everyone, which subset of them should you be suspicious of?

What do you mean by cooperating with the police? The guy abided by the law, which he was aware of and the border agents were not (or pretended not to be).

You must be of the opinion that laws are too lenient and that the additional bully tactics used by cops, etc., are actually in the interest of the general public b/c they help to correct for insufficiently strict laws.

If you don't believe this, then what is the nature of your argument that we should just comply with their wishes? Politeness? Tradition? Respect for authority? Humility?

I'm confused by this comment because I don't think the laws are too lenient, I don't believe in "bully tactics", and I do think that for society to work properly we do, for the most part, need to assist the people with charter with enforcing our laws.

I'm not repeating this in every comment because it feels tiresome, but, like I said, I'm glad this guy is out there pushing the frontiers of our civil liberties, but I still think he's a bit of a douche, and I still think his arguments don't make much sense: his fear of the consequences of answering "business or pleasure" seems irrational compared to the powers the border police already have to search his luggage, the files on his computer, and his body cavities without a warrant.

Incidentally, the principled stand this guy took for not answering questions seems a bit hollow when you consider that, semiotically speaking, he pretty much answered their question: "yes", he said, "I am very much worth your time to scrutinize further."

Principled or not, how is respectful, quiet dissent not completely appropriate.

Consider how comfortable a person is when speaking to a telemarketer compared to a police officer or border patrol officer.

That we must grovel before those in uniform is a clear sign that they have too much power.

Of course his behavior was irrational if he was someone trying to smuggle in contraband. But it was rational if he's someone who feels that his rights as a law abiding citizen have been compromised by the re-entry procedures and seeks to make a point.

I don't think you intended this, but this is a mix of strawman and slippery slope fallacies. It's not "the exact same logic." To begin with, in the OP's story he himself is the "suspect", and he knows he's innocent. There's no moral dilemma over whether to reply to the questions, only one of practical concerns versus abstract ideals.

I don't think the world was in danger of people taking the OP's argument to the witness situation you describe, and thus I don't need that caveat was necessary.

It's easy to see that being innocent doesn't eliminate any moral dilemma over answering questions. Most people are innocent! By answering questions, they're helping the police stop wasting time with them.

Be thankful that we have the right not to answer questions, and, yes, be thankful that crazy guys like this are out there demonstrating that right. But then remember the social contract and your obligations as a citizen; if the police are asking a reasonable question, you should answer.

Again, the OP is not talking about reasonable questions. Whether one is traveling for business or pleasure is not a reasonable thing for a customs cop to inquire a citizen upon entry into its own country. It is indeed none of their business.

I guess they only want to intimidate you and get you talking for a quick psychological profiling. And the OP responds like I wish everyone with nothing to hide did.

And that doesn't mean entrance lines would take forever. Police adapt their routines to the available time and resources.

> But having said that, there's an element of the social contract at play here. The exact same logic this guy is using suggests that he also shouldn't answer the questions of police investigating crimes in his neighborhood. "Have you seen this man? We think he just shot up your neighbor's car."

Quite importantly in this particular scenario, a police officer is not the same as a federal officer. Lying to a police officer is not a crime (at least usually, you may want to check your local statutes).

Completely agree with you regarding assisting police doing actual police work. It's the ones who are trolling and/or trying to trip people (guilty or innocent) into saying things that incriminate themselves because they are too ignorant of their rights to keep their mouths shut that I'm addressing here.

Can't really argue with anything else you said either - at the end of the day, I'm just hoping that we can fight a standing action on our rights to privacy, freedom from unjust search, etc... I see this guys response to these encroaching requests as a minor battle in a never-ending war. Ironically, I'm actually in favor of Full Body Emission Scans for people getting on airplanes, for the explicit search for explosives - so I might even be to the right of you on that topic.

And, as a fan of The Wire, I'll certainly track down "Cop in the Hood". Thanks.

> In order to be polite, you have to speak. [...] anything you say can be held against you in a court of law.

I think this is going a bit too far.

Can you come up with any reasonable way that "Hello, how are you?" and a smile can be used against you? This way you're polite. If this could be used against you in some way, why would you believe that any laws or rules would be obeyed?

On the other hand "None of your business" can be used against you. Saying that, you're being unreasonably aggressive in your conversation.

The author is a lawyer and states that ""None of your business" is a legally safe response, and does not open you up to criminal charges. Can you walk us through how you believe you might have violated a criminal statute with that specific answer?

With that said, "Hello, how are you" sounds fine (to me). But "Business or Pleasure" is a question that is fraught with legal peril.

It is fraught with theoretical peril in this guy's exposition, but I haven't seen any evidence that it's actually fraught with any practical peril. Many millions of citizens are asked this question every year, but "business or pleasure" does not appear to be a significant vector for criminal convictions the US.

This notion that answering "just visiting" to that question is some kind of pernicious legal tripwire seems like a fantasy, especially considering the fact that the border police can search you without provocation or cause if they really want mess with you.

You are one of a fairly small number of people worldwide who can be considered to be experts in computer security, yet you keep admitting here that this guy's approach is theoretically valid, and you just have a problem with it practically.

I really don't understand that.

How is that not like my saying, "Well, sure, theoretically I should be hashing the passwords in my database, but practically speaking we can't expect that it's going to matter anyway."?

(I upvoted you).

You are making an allusion to the perennial controversy over "theoretical" vs. "practical" vulnerabilities in my field. That's an interesting point, but unfortunately not a valid one.

In security, "theoretical" vs. "practical" is a fig leaf used (mostly) by vendors to avoid facing up to their responsibilities after having shipped flawed products. Calling something "theoretical" shields people from culpability, mostly in public relations, but clearly isn't actually an assessment of the real-world impact of most vulnerabilities. It's spin.

But the fact that the words "theoretical" and "practical" can be used as spin doesn't mean the concepts of "theory" and "practice" are inherently spin; the reality is quite the opposite. Outside of computer security, we'd be well advised to use those words more; our adhesion to the notion that all theoretical threats are practical is probably a major component of the "security theater" trend that has us all getting electronically strip searched in airports.

Yeah, I see what you're getting at. For my part, while I'm interested in computer security, I'm more interested in legal (or "real-life", or "social", or what-have-you) security. So, I'd be more inclined to say that when there's a theoretical legal attack, it should be handled as though it were a practical one.

I recently had a close friend go through the court system on multiple felony charges. That particular introduction to the legal system was eye-opening.

I'd be inclined to say that when there's a theoretical legal attack, it should be handled as though it were a practical one.

The real flaw in this argument is that as soon as you mark yourself out as "that guy who's being a dick" you attract a lot of attention, and you're more likely to wind up in court on some other charge.

For instance, there's a very high probability once you've started being a dick that they'll decide to thoroughly search your suitcase. Have you accurately reported the value of all goods acquired overseas on your customs declaration form? If you haven't (or even if you have but they feel like quibbling over the value of some of those goods, or if they suspect that some of the goods acquired in the US were acquired overseas) then you could potentially wind up getting charged over that.

The real flaw in this argument is that as soon as you mark yourself out as "that guy who's being a dick" you attract a lot of attention, and you're more likely to wind up in court on some other charge.

But doing the right thing can also get you into trouble. Just as Pascal Abidor.

Another way to say that is that there's no such thing as a "theoretical" vulnerability. There's either a working exploit, or there is not and we can test it. In physical security, though, there are plenty of movie plot threats that nobody has ever actually tried and which are not, in fact, practical.

With software, you can have the computer try millions of times to go after that one crazy race condition. Meanwhile, your average crazy bomber generally has one chance to get it right before everyone on the plane attacks and subdues him.

Tone of voice is just as important. I have an in-law who’s a cop, and most times if you're a jerk, he says you get the ticket you might otherwise not have. It’s very much an issue of power because someone needs to control the situation—you or them. Not to mention, being argumentative gives them a reason to suspect something else might be going on, and in turn, mess with you. Why give them that chance?

I wonder if he would try another experiment where he actually answers the questions as asked, but instead makes his tone sarcastic, etc. I bet he's pulled out of line just as quickly for cooling down, even though legally he’d have complied.

I think the point of saying nothing is that once you open your mouth, you can say something inadvertently that could be used against you (rightly or wrongly). Once the words start coming out, one follows the other, and you'll likely end up saying something you didn't want or need to. If your policy is to maintain silence except for the most basic interactions, then accidental self-incrimination is much less likely.

Lying to a federal agent. You're tired and angry dealing with the border security, but responding "great" or "fine" is technically 5 years federal prision.

I'm not sure how they could actually prove that, save you telling someone else you're tired and angry.

Please find one example in the history of ever of someone doing 1 day --- forget "5 years" --- for responding "great" or "fine" to a border police officer.

Whether it has already happened does not change whether it could happen. You only need to encounter one asshole like the one here: http://boingboing.net/2007/04/24/canadian-professor-d.html and you're screwed.

You just cited a case of an alien being denied entrance to the US as evidence of the notion that someone might be convicted of a felony and serve time because they answered "great" or "fine" to a border police question.

A friend of mine, who I will not name, used to get pulled over a lot, for a variety of reasons (often deserved).

This happened often enough, and his lawyer always advised him to not say a word, but especially when he'd been drinking, the act of getting him to talk long enough to say that he was invoking his right to silence would usually reveal that he'd been drinking.

To mitigate it, he printed a laminate card, that he kept in his wallet, which very respectfully and politely invoked his right to silence. When pulled over, he would simply remove the card from his wallet and hand it to the officer.

I don't know that it ever got him into or out of any trouble, but at least he had a routine, and it prevented him from talking unnecessarily.

Perhaps the author could have made use of something like this?

Considering he'd been drinking, I would have preferred that he'd be caught.

In the real world behavior like that causes police to treat "refusal to talk" as "guilty". Stories like this post are very far from the norm.

If I'm being perfectly honest, it wouldn't have surprised anyone if at any time he had to spend the rest of his life in jail. He's not someone I was ever particularly proud of knowing, and in fact, the only impressive thing about him, ever, was that he carried that card around.

Actually, wasn't there a case recently where someone refused to speak, but because he didn't say that he refused to speak, the judge ruled that he had not exercised his right to remain quiet?

Yeah, it really was that stupid. Because he had not specifically stated that he was using that right, they kept badgering him. The judge declared it legal since he didn't protest it at the time.

That was a sensible case, if I recall correctly. The "right to remain silent" means exactly what it says. It has further been extended to mean that if you tell the police you're exercising your right to remain silent then they have to call off the interview.

What this guy did was just to sit almost-silent in an interview room for a couple of hours until eventually the cop managed to prise a confession out of him (for what it's worth, the charge was murder and there was a lot of other evidence in addition to the confession, you can look it up). What the murderer's lawyer wanted was to have the confession deemed inadmissible (and hence a new trial, which was unlikely to result in a different verdict due to the overwhelming other evidence but would at least line the lawyer's pockets a bit more) on the grounds that sitting there and not answering questions for a couple of hours should oblige the police to stop asking questions.


"And finally, the court's conservatives used their 5-4 advantage to rule that suspects must break their silence and tell police they are going to remain quiet if they want to invoke their "right to remain silent" and stop an interrogation, just as they must tell police that they want a lawyer."


Apropos nothing, how seriously can you take a news story that uses the words "the court's conservatives used their 5-4 advantage to rule..."? Wow, that's bad writing.

Yeah, I agree there. That was seriously out-of-place and unnecessary.

If you agree, would you care to point out what is badly written about that quote?

How so?

Interesting, today I just read that the court's Conservatives are the most likely to side with the defendants, on average:


Does this surprise you? It shouldn't. Despite the perception on the internet, there is a reason half of the population leans conservative.

I highly doubt that any speech that's part of a one sentence explanation of your civil rights is going to land up working against you in court. The odds of that are lost in the noise of the odds that the officer will fabricate evidence against you, including spoken declarations you never actually spoke.

It's possible, but extremely unlikely.

I like responding with questions (or completely off topic statements) in a polite manner. This way police think that you're being cooperative and chatty, as well as bowing to their authority, when you're really not.

"Was your trip business or pleasure?": "Is there a difference?" (with a smile, or a sarcastic sigh).

"Do you know why I pulled you over?": "My friend was once pulled over and thanked for properly signaling!" (big "i'm clearly joking" smile).

"Do you have anything you'd like to tell me?": "My mom always used to ask that a lot... usually when I was in trouble. Am I in trouble?" (smiling! always smiling!)

This usually gets them talking back in a joking manner... or get straight to the point. Either way, you've established that you're smart and friendly, not a smart-ass. When they do get to the point, you can usually clearly state (with a smile!) "I'm afraid a lawyer friend once told me not to answer these questions when pulled over."

You might get some special attention, but you probably won't be put in the naughty corner and told to "cool down".

If I was an officer and you gave me those answers (with the possible exception of the business or pleasure question), I'd be more annoyed than if you just said "no". Smart-ass is exactly the vibe I'm getting from them. I'm probably not like most police officers, though.

Only that you're probably less likely to pull him out of the car and beat him within an inch of his life, than most "officers" would to someone being sarcastic or joking.

"Do you have anything you'd like to tell me?

/me activates qik on Android /me tagging qik stream with #copwatch /me looking both ways, leaning forward, stage whisper

I could use a blowjob

The point is that politeness reminds the officer that you're a human being, like them, not the statistic that the author speaks of. On the other hand, if someone was rude to me and I were a cbp officer, I would certainly go the extra mile to stick it to them.

> ...if someone was rude to me and I were a cbp officer, I would certainly go the extra mile to stick it to them.

Precisely why you -- and most people -- shouldn't hold positions of authority over others.

Undoubtedly this is true, but it's also undoubtedly impractical. Check this out, it's even worse than you think: I'm not someone who really hungers for authority. I don't seek it out. Some people do, and I'd guess from my interactions with them that they have even more of this unfortunate trait than I do.

Even without that, I doubt there are enough qualified people in the world who are completely lacking in vindictiveness to fill the positions of authority that have formed as a result of the grand accumulation of human interaction. So, bearing that in mind, it's typically best to be polite to people who can hurt you.

Someone who wants to hurt you is going to do it independent of if you are polite it not.

True, but someone who just wants to hurt someone is going to pick on whoever stands out.

More to the point, the degree to which any human wants to hurt another depends on their emotional state. Impoliteness tends to destabilize it's recipients' emotional state.

Perhaps. Perhaps they will pick on the meeker instead of the stronger, the darker-skinned instead of the caucasian or the female instead of the male. Not all bullies are alike.

But impoliteness can tip the scale.

So who would you suggest should do this, or any, job that requires a position of authority?

That may be optimum if your goal is to get through immigration quickly and easily. Clearly that's not the authors primary goal, as he says his behavior gets him hassled, but "that’s a small price to pay to remind these thugs that their powers are limited and restricted."

> would be more pragmatic

Pragmatism holds that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb (and that we can expect this method to lead us to make good decisions, learn things about the world, etc.) So when I see phrases like this, I literally think "this is what I would do if I were shooting in the dark, trying random things without any principle or reason to guide my actions".

Instead of just voting me down, please say why you disagree with my opinion of pragmatism.

Disagreeing with your opinion of pragmatism would be the wrong reason to vote your comment down. I voted it down because it only tries to derail the discussion to the topic of language.

I would understand a clarification on the lines of "ah, but I was actually meaning this" to clarify a misunderstanding.

Because that's not what the dictionary says?

(As a side note, I did not vote you down.)

It's true that choosing some other words besides "none of your business" would probably have helped him a little.

Your point is that being perhaps even particularly polite in situations like this would reduce the potential for trouble for yourself, but the author's aim was just to make a stand. It's actually a pretty noble goal, to do that on behalf of pretty much everyone else, who would just meekly comply.

I think something like "Good afternoon officer, how are you?" is even a bit excessive, although maybe it's become more like necessary when traveling in the US, which seems to be quite a police state nowadays.

What was it like at airports before 9/11? Exactly what benefit does the TSA actually provide? Why can't I bring a freaking bottle of water with me at pretty much any airport in the world anymore? -Why doesn't it matter if I volunteer to take a sip of my explosive liquids in front of the guards?

All good questions, I think, except the last one. It doesn't matter if you volunteer to sip your explosive liquids because your intent is to die in the upcoming explosion anyway. Sipping them doesn't prove anything.

Well, in that case they should just tackle me to the ground the instant they see me touch a water bottle. Why don't they do that? :)

I didn't realize there was a link to a follow up post until you mentioned it. The color of the link is nearly the same color as the rest of the text.

Yeah, there are some links hidden in his body text too. Hate it when web authors do that.

This video is germain to this conversation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc

It is unfortunate that the power-balance has become so one-sided that we actively worry about speaking to the police in case they decide to make your life difficult.

I was about to post this myself.

Here's my problem: theoretically, the video makes sense. I shouldn't every speak to the police.

Practically, if I'm pulled over for a speeding ticket, saying "I refuse to speak" is going to get me in a lot more trouble than just playing along.

Be pragmatic and polite and don’t answer questions. If they ask you whether you know why they stopped you simply say “No, why?” (For the love of goodness, don’t admit that you were doing something wrong or even worse say you didn’t do anything wrong when you did.) If they ask you for ID provide them with one. It doesn’t seem that they would ask you any more questions, they can just hand you over the ticket. If they really do continue asking questions you can just politely say that you would rather not answer any more questions. That’s behavior very much consistent with the video.

I have twice gotten out of a ticket by promptly and honestly admitting that I was breaking the law and had no excuse.

Cops are human lie detectors, playing dumb with them never works. OTOH acknowledging this fact straight away seems to make them happy.

You shouldn’t play dumb.

The simple reason why you always want to know what the police accuses you of before you admit to doing anything is that they might know less than you think. (That’s exactly why they ask you!) You should never lie to the police, you should just politely ask them why they stopped you. What’s wrong with that?

I have to second this. I have gotten out of a ticket every time I've been pulled over (~10 times).

The first thing I say is "I'm sorry officer. I know I was why I got pulled over. I just excuse for it"

Has worked every time.

If a police officer is lost and pulls into your driveway to ask directions, sure, you should probably do your best to help even though you have to responsibility to do so. However, as soon as an on-duty public official exceeds his or her authority in an offensive way (like if the officer demanded your help or shot your dog [1]), he or she deserves no gracious human-to-human "emotional" kindness from you. On top of that, I wouldn't consider any of this guy's answer impolite, unethical, or even impractical. Sure, your exact wording might be better to avoid being hassled, but there's no guarantee of that, plus not everyone is good at wording things tactfully especially when they're being wronged.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mvIWFXbHNo#t=0m48s

If you really feel that strongly about these questions the correct response is most definitely not what he's done. In the end he's only hurting himself. I don't know who has the power to actually change this, but I'd be willing to wager they'll never even learn of his existence.

All he ended up accomplishing was wasting his time and the time of people being paid by the tax payers.

I am sorry, this is not being polite, this is grovelling. If you are going to do that, you might as well just answer the question.

Respect goes both ways, he was not rude, and did everything correct. Your way is just absolutely disgusting, you seem to feel the need to apologize for doing nothing wrong. You are begging to be left alone. You have no need to explain your reasoning here.

Why would you apologize in this instant?

Funny how the thugs in uniform are to be treated as humans with emotions, but our victim deserves the abuse he got!

We are trained in our society to be absolutely obedient to authority, and no abuses by authority, such as the lies this guy was told, the harassment he endured, and the threats he was threatened with, matters at all.

But for him to politely refuse to display subservience to this authority, you pretend like he was being rude.

Uh, the first thing the guy said was,"That's none of your business." I wouldn't call that a polite refusal. More like an FU refusal.

The moment you call anybody "sir" you are bowing to them.

Using the word 'sir' when talking to someone you're not familiar with is generally intended simply as a gesture of respect. It's not some sort of submissive term.

My occupation puts me in positions of authority over strangers from time to time. I pretty much always default to '"sir" and "m'am" in those cases.

Maybe it is cultural thing - nobody here calls a stranger sir.

"You" would seem to be more appropriate.

"You" is pretty rude in America (or at least the North East).

To add a little more context, I work in emergency services (fire/EMS), so if I'm addressing someone, it's typically to give them instruction to keep them safe ("Sir, I need you to ______"). I also use 'sir' before I know someone's name ("Excuse me sir, could I get your name?").

The word can certainly have different connotations depending on the relationship. A service employee would generally refer to a customer/employer as "sir," and I suppose there's an air of subservience there.

On reflection, I suppose you could call a firefighter a "service employee," and civilians on an emergency scene are in many ways "customers," so my use of the term might just be an extension of that relationship...

It's an American thing -- I've found it's very common in the US to address random strangers as "sir", and it's used among people on the same social level.

In other English-speaking countries I've been to, "sir" is a genuine sign of subservience.

Where's "here"?

Personally the situation where I'm most likely to call someone sir is where I'm giving them a forceful verbal put down. "With due respect sir that sort of language is unacceptable here." or what have you.

I'm in the UK so also when addressing a Knight of the realm in a formal setting.


UK also here - I don't think I've ever used the word "sir" outside of a humorous context.

Or when you want something from a stranger. "Excuse me sir, have you got any change..."

(And similarly with the leafletting, cashiering, tour-guiding and door-holding occupations I've had in the past. You want people to feel important, and you're in a subservient position, so you elevate them verbally. Basically, when you're a Baldrick.)

It's certainly less common than it used to be. My father -- born in 1927 -- typically uses sir and ma'am to people he doesn't know, unless he's being introduced, regardless of the relative social positions. I was taught to do the same in private school in the 80s (though only explicitly to "my elders"), but dropped the habit for the most part, and these days I'm uncomfortable and a bit startled when someone "sirs" me.

Where is 'here.' In Virginia where I'm from, calling someone 'you' can be rude.

If only I had known that in Jesuit high school; it would have made all those detentions I served easier to take if I had known the dean was actually cowtowing to me every time he cited me for an untucked shirt.

I prefer "officer", which is just as respectful, and reminds them that they are an officer of the law -- not my boss.

Can't speak for everywhere, but from a British point of view, it's probably the opposite. Personally I basically only use Sir when I'm telling a stranger off. I guess it depends a lot on the tone of voice used. :-)

Which is another American use of sir in that, when someone cuts you off in line, rather than let loose, a firm but loud “Sir” tends to let them know you’re angry and that perhaps they did something wrong. Of course, if “Sir” ends up failing, then comes more interesting dialog. :-)

Yeah, this is a problem with English. In French you can call anyone m'sieur or in Russian tovarisch and it's fine, but in English we only have sir or dude/mate/whatever and nothing in between.

I'm astonished at the number of folks who are sincere in their belief that politeness and respect make one immune from abuse at the border. The belief seems to be based on their own politeness and lack of hassles thus far.

I crossed the border more than a hundred times over ten years with no difficulties whatsoever. I grew up in a police family and am unswervingly polite and respectful. That did not protect me from 12 hours of interrogation in a white room and a deportment (reason still undetermined and undisclosed: a Freedom of Information Act request brought a document 75% redacted) when I happened upon the wrong, bored CBP official.

Just because you've affirmed the consequent a few dozen times doesn't mean politeness will help you.

I'm astonished at the number of folks who are sincere in their belief that politeness and respect make one immune from abuse at the border.

I am baffled that you would interpret statements that "it makes a difference" to mean "it confers immunity". Of course it does not confer immunity. But it does make a difference. The author of the piece strikes me as extremely contemptuous. I imagine he attracts a lot of negative behavior from people without having any clue that he did anything to encourage it.

I'm a guy who thinks of the TSA as "security theater" and I still thought the author sounded like a douchebag.

The guys an attorney; he's obviously pressing legal buttons because it's intellectually interesting to him. Bully for him. He has studied the law a bunch and knows exactly what to say / do down every branch of the decision tree.

Me, I'm just trying to get into the country or past TSA as easily as possible and the last thing I need is some dude winding up the officer who's about to inspect me.

The guys an attorney; he's obviously pressing legal buttons because it's intellectually interesting to him. Bully for him.

At the risk of really, really stepping in it:

My oldest was not identified as "gifted" until he was 11. A few months later, it dawned on me that his obnoxious habit of torturing me with argumentative behavior was rooted in boredom. (He was in special ed in public school as he is both gifted and learning disabled, something schools generally do a poor job of dealing with.) This realization empowered me to put a stop to this bad habit of his by making sure he was more constructively occupied and spent less time bored.

There is an old saying: "Idle hands are the devil's workshop". I have noticed that extremely argumentative people are typically quite intelligent and their arguments frequently seem to be something they do to entertain themselves, and damn the consequences. In most cases (of individuals I have personally known), where this is an incredibly obnoxious habit on their part, like my son, they also have some kind of personal handicap (in other cases of individuals I have personally known, they might have a handicap but I did not know for certain). Baiting people is a cheap and easy means to get around their handicap and get some of their intellectual needs met.

Someone utterly and completely convinced that "politeness makes no difference" may well have a personal handicap that may have never been identified. "Twice exceptional" individuals (gifted and learning disabled/handicapped) frequently go unrecognized. Their strengths tend to make up for their weaknesses and mask the problem(s). But it also generally makes for an enormously frustrating life so, unsurprisingly, most of them seem to carry a huge chip on their shoulder. Such individuals are often fairly paranoid as well, most likely due to routinely and consistently having their very real problems dismissed, poo-pooed, and so forth and generally being treated like they are imagining things. Since they aren't imagining things and do have a very real problem and their predictions are routinely borne out as more accurate than that of most people around them, they commonly become convinced that everyone else is also just an idiot. I have an "invisible" handicap that was not diagnosed until late in life and I spend a lot of time wrestling with something that Einstein described very well:

"A question that makes me hazy, am I or are the others crazy?"

On another note, IIRC, only 7% of face-to-face communication is the actual words we use. The rest is body language, voice tone, facial expression, and context (and I might be leaving something out). So if you have a chip on your shoulder and you walk up to the desk and haughtily look down your nose at the person across from you and your facial expression and body language just scream "I'm better than you, I'm sure you are an incompetent dolt and I am expecting you to be an ass to me", before you have said a word you have already negatively influenced the way the whole thing will go. Then you open your mouth and your voice tone just reinforces all that negativity. People who do that sort of thing are frequently not consciously aware of it, which tends to just make them believe the world is full of assholes since "everyone" routinely reacts negatively to them.

I can understand that sentiment. When I was very ill, in constant excruciating pain and doped to the gills, I could not keep both feet out of my mouth no matter how hard I tried. And I really tried like hell. But there are people in the world who will probably never forgive me. I feel no real compulsion to kiss their asses. I feel like "Excuse the hell out of me for living". Getting well/healthier has done a lot to improve my social experience. I don't have to try nearly so hard anymore yet I get better reception from people generally. For me, this means that subjectively there is a huge disconnect between how much effort I put in and the outcomes I get. That doesn't mean that if I am polite, it makes no difference. That means that trying to be polite and actually being polite aren't the same thing.

All very good points, and convincingly presented. But I don't think anybody (nobody here, at least) is contesting that politeness is important and useful in social interactions.

The question was whether being polite or brusque (and he wasn't rude after all, just perfunctory and not actively polite) in refusing to answer CBP officers' questions would have made much of a difference to the CBP response.

If you cannot see that interacting with CBP officers is "social interaction", then I don't see where we can ever come to any agreement. And if you were not there and if there is also no videotape of the interaction, I don't see how you can assert with any certainty that he was not being rude at all. As I stated above, the vast majority of such things is conveyed not by words but by voice tone, body language, facial expression and so on. As far as I know, the only account of the incident is from his point of view. Perhaps the CBP officers have gotten together and written their own account, but so far I have seen no mention of it (and I consider that unlikely as it could potentially cost them their jobs -- security jobs typically require you to generally keep your mouth shut). His writing tone and his framing of things (that these people are "thugs" who deserve to be treated a certain way by him for, apparently, not simply up and quitting their jobs as proof that they don't agree with ...whatever he is taking issue with) doesn't give me much confidence that he wasn't rude in some way.

For that matter: Most people cannot up and quit their jobs. Having a job is not strong evidence that someone wholeheartedly supports and believes in all policies and practices of their place of employment. In many cases, it is only evidence that they prefer putting up with the crap at work to putting up with the alternatives (such as homelessness). Even in cases where someone does strongly disagree with what goes on at work, most people cannot afford to simply up and quit and there may be little they can do to change it while they are there. If they really feel strongly about it, they typically begin job hunting and leave as soon as is practicable without cutting their own throats. Additionally, if they have any sense, afterwards they tend to keep their mouths shut about the things they did not approve of. Talking trash about a former employer can be a good way to ensure that other people will be reluctant to hire you.

He makes snide remarks about the "low pay" of these people in a way which strikes me as classist and then makes even uglier remarks about how they deserve his treatment for not up and quitting which he claims they can do "at any time". He damns them coming and going, which does nothing to convince me he was even civil. Everything he wrote paints a picture of an individual with a chip on their shoulder who is actively looking to create such a confrontation. In his own words: "But that’s a small price to pay to remind these thugs that their powers are limited and restricted." So his stated goal was not to simply exercise his rights. His stated goal was to "teach them a lesson", in essence. That kind of goal is generally rife with unstated hostility.

> On another note, IIRC, only 7% of face-to-face communication is the actual words we use. The rest is body language, voice tone, facial expression, and context (and I might be leaving something out).

That's a popular idea to throw around nowadays. Try body-languaging and voice-toning "excuse me, could you point me towards the nearest post-office?" to someone.

But yes, a really negative attitude usually shows.

That's a popular idea to throw around nowadays. Try body-languaging and voice-toning "excuse me, could you point me towards the nearest post-office?" to someone.

:-) :-) Not being a smartass and I'm sure I couldn't body language a "could you point me towards the nearest post office" to a total stranger, but my oldest son talked in sentences late and invented an elaborate system for communicating with me involving two word phrases, made up words, miming and grunting and gesturing. I finally stuck him in preschool to force him to use sentences, which I knew he could do but was refusing to do for some reason. Years later, when I was so ill and frequently in the midst of swallowing pills and thus unable to speak right at that moment, he was the only family member whom I could gesture and grunt at and usually get what I needed.

Language had to start somewhere. Presumably, it began with voice tone conveying important information, which is not terribly different from what most animals seem to do for communication.

Alright, you had some kind of primitive system for communicating certain "messages". It could be comparable to Morse code - two taps on the table means "me hungry", etc.

But I don't think that's related to people saying things like "70% of all communication is non-verbal". I just took it at face value, and tried to point out that it's not. It's just a comment that's tempting to throw around because it's kind of dramatic.

Instead of slapping an arbitrary percentage value on it, I'd be more comfortable saying "a considerable part of our communication is non-verbal", which it obviously is. 70% is just too high a percentage to be realistic.

Yes, language had to start somewhere, and because grunting and gesturing just isn't enough, it had to evolve to what we have now.

I've crossed the border a number of times myself. What has been amazing for me over the last several years is the striking difference in demeanor between foreign customs officers and those I deal with coming back into the US, especially at the Canadian border.

Coming in and out of the US through the local major airport -- San Francisco -- my experiences have been mixed coming in. Customs varies between nice and a little bit surly, but never outright so.

However, when I drive or fly to Canada? Canadian customs is amazingly friendly and welcoming -- even when crossing at odd hours like 2am when on a road trip. However, coming back into the states, be it dealing with customs at the border (major and minor crossing) or at the airport, I sometimes ask myself -- "why do I live in this country?"

Customs has a hard job and dealing with a lot of people friendly to rude during the day does take a toll. However, often times, these are the first people that someone coming to visit the US encounters. I would hope for a good first impression, but unfortunately that isn't always the case.

Going to Europe this winter it will be fun to compare and contrast again.

Interestingly enough, I had the exact opposite experience as a Canadian camping in the US this summer. The customs at the US was fantastic, it was our first time visiting, and my 11 year old daughter was very nervous. The customs office asked questions in a nice way, smiled at my daughter and told her not to be so nervous, indicated that we'd have a great time where we were going, and generally was very friendly and welcoming.

Coming back into Canada, the customs agent was not nearly as friendly. Perhaps we looked a little scruffy after a week of camping, but the questions were more brusque and suspicious.

Every country is different.

In Tokyo I was through customs so fast I wasn't sure I was through.

Last time I entered Jamaica I was shaken down. After going back and forth for a few minutes I realized it was a shake down and simply asked him "how much?" $50 later and I was on my way. To make a long story short I had brought a few gifts for friends who were meeting me there and the customs agent claimed I was bringing items into the country to sell. Um yeah, I'm selling 4 towels?

In and out of Costa Rica was interesting. When I went I only took a backpack and surfboards. They didn't say much entering the country and only checked out the surfboard bag. Leaving the country they searched everything multiple times prior to leaving (once at security then again plane side). They were all very polite though.

Admittedly I don't do a lot of international travel but I've never had any problems entering the US have always answered the 1-2 questions with yes/no and "I'm glad to be back."

Every country is different, but coming back into the US is a uniformly annoying experience. From my experiene, US Customs/Border agents are at the very least lacking any sort of friendliness with some sort of powertrip being the norm.

Given these are some of the first people visitors to this country encounter, I would hope they would be friendly and professional rather than surly and on an power trip.

Every foreign country I have been to (mostly Europe and Canada) has been friendlier and more welcoming than every single instance that I have had in dealing with US customs upon re-entry. And, for the record, I am in the "here's my passport" and answers questions crowd.

And I have experienced the exact opposite when entering US. The agents have always been friendly and courteous. I wonder if it has to do with what airport you enter the country from. All of my international flights end up going through ATL.

Politeness works fine with many people in many circustances, and it has bought me out of a few pinches. I've seen a cop's face go from suspicious anger to placidity from a smooth handling of their concerns. I'd wager that most of the time, politeness won't hurt and sometimes it will help. Sometimes though you're right, particularly with law enforcement, if someone is in a bad mood and on a power trip it will not make one iota of difference. What I took from this is to pay attention, there's no need to consistently clam up like this guy does, but remember it's an option because sometimes it may be necessary.

You're still chasing a red herring: By all accounts this guy was polite.

You're using the word "politeness" to mean "absolutely subservient to the whims of authority".

He WAS polite, but stood on his rights. Including the absolute right to silence, which he politely explained.

"absolutely subservient to the whims of authority"

That's reading an awful lot into what I wrote. By the author's own language he appears to bear a grudge against the CBP, so while he sounds polite by his own account he clearly goes out of his way to prove a (valid) point. I don't really see a problem with, most of the time, answering that I was on a business trip and packed my own bags, nor should most people in a "polite society". I don't see how this is being subservient to anyone. Wouldn't a better policy be to assume no problem and only raise the issue if they raise it first? It's healthy for society to have people push back against the system but it's also in our best interest, overall, to have security and part of that security is making judgments based on how someone responds to simple questions.

>>“Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

>>“None of your business,” I said.

That's not being polite. Being polite would be to say "Just visiting for fun".

It sounds like he didn't want to get through passport control.

Much of life is about jumping through silly arbitrary hoops to get what you want. In the case of getting through customs+immigration, you just keep quiet, don't cause a fuss, and tell them what they'd like to hear.

> That's not being polite. Being polite would be to say "Just visiting for fun".

No, that is revealing information unnecessarily.

"Sorry, I am not required to answer that question" is a polite version of "none of your business".

What information did you reveal? That you thought China would be fun?

Jeez this is verging on some conspiracy theory where you disclosing the fact that you had fun/thought you may have fun implicates you in someones murder.

Either you answer the question with a nondescript answer "I like China" or you're just being a dick.

Reminds me of the idiotic thinking of Richard Stallman.

I have no time for 'principled' martyr type people who cut off their nose to spite their face.

The statement was not a polite version of the original. It offered additional information.

You may not see any problems with it, nor agree with the article's assertions. That is your choice. Equally the "dick" is allowed to tell them it is none of their business - though I think my (slightly more) polite version would be better.

>> "Equally the "dick" is allowed to tell them it is none of their business"

And as has been stated elsewhere, the security personel are allowed to detain them, submit them to body cavity searches and be equally dickish.

It goes both ways...

> It goes both ways...

Actually it usually goes only one way..

Agreed. It's usually the public acting like dicks to security staff. They're doing a job. They're providing security theatre so that idiots feel safer.

The security theater was introduced after 9/11, for whatever real reason, and I think it would be really difficult to find evidence of the public actually asking for it. It's strange you claimed it did.

It's pretty difficult to believe it makes anyone feel safer, and if it does, it's comparable to believing in "change you can believe in".

"Being polite would be to say "Just visiting for fun".

thats not being polite, that is answering the question and thereby opening yourself up to accusations that you were being misleading.

"None of your business" was a simple statement of fact, neither rude nor polite.

I think a lot of the discussion here is boiling down to this statement in particular. Maybe you don't interpret "None of your business" as impolite, but when I hear it, it's usually a snippy reply to someone being too nosy. It's actually difficult for me to imagine this line being delivered in such a way that I _wouldn't_ interpret as being rude or aggressive.

Yet "I'd prefer not to discuss my affairs" conveys the same message with a much different connotation.

Call the ACLU and sue. At the very least, you'll waste some of the ACLU's time and money. (ducks)

I'm horrified at the amount of people calling him a douche and asshole in his blog comments for asserting his rights. I didn't think such submission to authority had become such an American trait.

As someone who used precisely this word to describe him, I'll say that it's his attitude and his worldview that any cooperation with law enforcement is fodder for a vast conspiracy to incarcerate him that motivated me. It is not an abrogation of your civil liberaties to answer a question.

That said, I also recognize the value of what he did, and I'm glad there are douchebags like him out there, exactly like Colbert's "Douchebag of Liberty" segment about the guy who flips off patrol cops as a matter of policy. Thank you, douchebags of liberty.

The attitude and worldview I find more naive and paranoid than douche-baggish. What really made me think "what a tool" me was quote "The CBP goons want U.S. citizens to answer their questions as a ritualistic bow to their power."

It's the fundamental (and obviously incorrect) assumption that they're some sort of thugs, rather than decent people just trying to do the job they are paid and trained to do, that makes the author a certified douche bag.

"It's the fundamental (and obviously incorrect) assumption that they're some sort of thugs, rather than decent people just trying to do the job they are paid and trained to do, that makes the author a certified douche bag."

I don't find that obviously incorrect. The banality of evil is probably the most important lesson in human nature of the twentieth century, and it makes many kinds of "decent people just trying to do the job they are paid and trained to do" look a lot closer to thugs -- or at best their enablers.

Could he have done what he did in a less abrasive way? Probably so. But refusing to go along with even little infringements on human liberty is an essential part of eternal vigilance.

Can you explain how you managed to transit from "The banality of evil is probably the most important lesson" to "it's not obvious that the border police aren't thugs"? Are people thugs by default in your worldview? Or just all law enforcement officers?

People in positions of power often act inadvertently thuggish, yes. It's in the nature of positions of power and the human condition. It's why it's so important to have checks and balances, and ensure that those checks and balances are exercised regularly so that they don't get rusty from disuse.

Take the Nazis. It's not like every German was evil, or even that most Germans were evil. It was the situation and structure that was evil, and the social proof, and a hundred and one other things, that add up to decent people doing monstrous evil.

Character really doesn't matter for as much as a lot of people like to think. Almost everything people do comes down to their incentives and their situation, from the lowest thug to the most noble statesman. Ascribing flaws or nobility to character is a way of personalizing these situations, often to justify treating people with very few options with harshness and cruelty, while rewarding people in the position to do good with social standing and wealth, etc.

It doesn't help when you have a society led by Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler. By which I mean to point out that Nazism is a silly comparison to make.

Well, in fairness the thread did go on long enough to satisfy Goodwin's law.

What the banality of evil suggests is that "evil" or in this case "thuggish" behavior is much more a function of social role, and less a function of character, than people thought. (Yes, it really was a radical idea -- recall that two-thirds of the people in Milgram's famous experiment went to shocking an unresponsive subject with 450 volts, when almost everyone had assumed, prior to the experiment actually being run, that only a one-in-a-thousand psychopath would get there. Check out Milgram's book Obedience To Authority for more details.)

You're doing a fine job illustrating the banality of evil, but you're not explaining what that has to do with the situation at hand. Yes, we need to be on guard for situations in which authoritarianism provides cover for evil. That's why we have a constitution and a court system and why we elect the people who create laws and appoint the people who enforce them.

Holding someone up from reentering his own country because he didn't tell you all about his trip to China is rather thuggish behavior in my opinion.

People turn into thugs in large part because of their position in power dynamics. That is, it's most probably that it's the job that makes people thugs, not the people themselves (decent though they may be outside the job). Cf. Stanford Prison Experiment etc.

The Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that we be on guard for situations where power dynamics encourage thuggish behavior. It does not, however, follow from the experiment that every law enforcement officer is a thug.

"Not every X is Y" is almost never a relevant or meaningful argument. It certainly doesn't answer "Position X promotes Y-like behavior, and so many "decent, average people" in position X will be Ys."

He was being a dick for the sake of it.

You don't answer an officials first question with "None of your business" unless you're being a dick, trying to get in trouble, or trying to pick a fight with them.

Just tell them what they want to hear in wooly non-descriptive language.

She only asked "Why were you in China" for god sake. Just answer "I like China".

These moral crusader 'principle of the thing' types irritate the hell out of me.

I went to an American High School for a year and noticed that compared to Swedes, Americans tend to really respect authority. I was screamed at by a history teacher for calling him "Newell" when I should have said "Mr. Newell" (in Sweden we don't do this, so it's easy to forget).

Swedes tend to be naïve when it comes to the government though, but that might be because compared to the USA the rate of corruption in Swedish government is low.

But yeah, from experience I've found that Americans demand customer service from the private sector, but never from the public sector. What is up with that?

Perhaps that's because where you see "asserting his rights" I just see an attention-seeking lawyer lording himself over low-paid fellow human beings with a dull and thankless task to perform.

You can "assert your rights" all you want, and those include the right to be a douchebag. If I meet you at a bar and I say "Hi, how are you?" and you say "Screw you, I don't have to answer your questions!" you're well within your rights but still a douchebag. It's nice to know you have the legal right to do something stupid (burn a koran or stand on a street corner in Harlem with a sign that says "I hate niggers") but putting those legal rights to the test may still make you a douchebag.

Also, I'm considering it from the point of view of the hundreds of people who were no doubt stuck behind him in the line while he threw his little hissy fit.

Funny, I feel the exact opposite. I'm horrified that people would consider this asserting his rights rather than being a douche.

Asserting your rights is not moving to the back of the bus because your skin is the wrong color. Not just telling some customs guy who gets paid $12 an hour to answer questions mandated by Congress the answer to some insignificant questions is just being a douche.

What is the "douche faction's" obsession with the pay of CBP officers? Is that somehow relevant to the discussion? He only dealt with the front-line officer for about two minutes anyway--in the back room he asked for a more-highly-paid superior and got one. So I'm assuming that makes you happier?

BTW, do you have a citation for "mandated by Congress," or are you relying on the statement of the $12/hour officer for that?

The point of the pay is to illustrate how far removed the person the author is being a douche to is from the people who make the policies. People in low level jobs like that are generally just trying to get through the day.

Asserting that "The CBP goons want U.S. citizens to answer their questions as a ritualistic bow to their power" is douchebaggery in it's highest form, and it illustrates his mindset as that of man vs government. That statement alone, referring to decent people just trying to do their job as goons, qualifies the author as a douchebag.

Also, how much power does a guy on a low-level government wage really feel they have? I'd bet anything they're told in their training that what they do is extremely important, that they are on the front lines in the war on terror. And they're also told that when someone refuses to cooperate (which, by the way, no terrorist would do) there's pretty much nothing they can do about it. They have what they feel is responsibility without power, which is a terrible situation for them to be in.

I certainly don't know or care if those questions are mandated by Congress. (I don't find it hard to believe that they were though, or at least mandated by a group set up by Congress for that purpose.) It doesn't really matter.

What I'm sure of is that they weren't mandated by the any of the people who questioned our author, especially if there are check boxes for them in some software. They probably weren't mandated by anyone who had ever met any of the author's victims, or even heard of them. And the people who mandated them will most likely never even hear of this guy or the handful of nutjobs like him.

The point of the pay is to illustrate how far removed the person the author is being a douche to is from the people who make the policies. People in low level jobs like that are generally just trying to get through the day.

If it is not a legal requirement that they detain entrants who do not answer questions entrants are not required to answer, then someone who does so anyway does not get to use the "just doing my job" defense.

Asserting that "The CBP goons want U.S. citizens to answer their questions as a ritualistic bow to their power" is douchebaggery in it's highest form

Except this is precisely what distinguishes them from CBP non-goons.

This is yet another reason why the pay is important. Low level jobs are process-oriented. They are designed to be carried out by average people. They are trained on what to do in various situations, of which this is probably one. I don't know about legal requirements, but I'd bet anything their training doesn't tell them to just say "have a nice day" when someone refuses to answer simple questions.

The customs agents this guy dealt with were just doing what they were trained to do. That's all they can be expected to do, all they should do. It's unreasonable to treat them as goons for simply doing their job. They're real people, most of them probably decent ones (because really, most people are decent people) who have families to feed, mortgages to pay, cars to buy, etc. Assuming that they are not makes the author a douchebag (and one who reads way too much Orwell).

There is not a distinction between goons and non-goons that can be made. He'd probably get similar results at any airport he went to because they all go through the same training program.

I don't know about legal requirements, but I'd bet anything their training doesn't tell them to just say "have a nice day" when someone refuses to answer simple questions.

Then it should. He is under no legal obligation to answer their questions. If I were to try something similar, I'd be much more polite about it, but, rude or not, he was perfectly within his rights to refuse to answer.

Now, if other factors were enough to actually raise reasonable suspicion that he had done something wrong (such as smuggling some contraband into the country), then the proper response is to move him on to further screening.

It's unreasonable to treat them as goons for simply doing their job.

Ah, yes, the tried-and-true "just doing their job" argument. I don't buy it. People are responsible for their conduct while performing their job. Their employer may set policy, but in the end the person implementing that policy that must accept shared responsibility for that policy.

They're real people, most of them probably decent ones (because really, most people are decent people)

Wait, wait, wait. Now, I'm going on just the words of the author here, but:

"The officer changed tack to bad cop. 'Let this guy sit until he cools down,' the officer loudly said to a colleague. 'It could be two, three, four hours. He’s gonna sit there until he cools down.'"

How does that describe the actions of a decent person? I don't care if the author was rude to the customs official. Declaring in a power-trip manner that you're going to make someone wait for 2-4 hours just because you can... how is that decent?

I do think the guy was a bit of a douche in how he handled the situation: "none of your business" is probably one of the rudest ways he could refuse to answer. Something more like, "I'm sorry, but I'm not legally required to answer your questions and would prefer not to," seems like it would have garnered a better response, both from the customs officials, and from the hordes of commenters calling him a douche. If he had done that, and still was subjected to the same mistreatment, I'd feel a lot more sympathetic. But still, he did nothing legally wrong, and exercised his rights as a US citizen, and was detained and hassled for it. That's wrong.

I don't think you can read too much Orwell, nor, in nonfiction, too much Solzhenitsyn or Milton Mayer.

Any Orwell other than Animal Farm is too much Orwell.

Orwell's fundamental problem was that he didn't understand how organizations function, and how the whole differs from the sum of its parts. He saw only the trees and not the forest. He understood what motivated individuals well, and just extrapolated that out, which led to erroneous thinking.

Aldous Huxley was quite the opposite, which is why his vision of government and society has in many ways materialized but his vision of the individual has not. There was a great post here a couple weeks back about the two that illustrated it.

So, just curious; where's the dividing line between "poor government schlub just doing his job" and "Nazi prison guard who knew he was doing evil", assuming you'd agree the Nazi guard is culpable on some level?

Fact is, government employees can choose to work elsewhere. But as a citizen I'm stuck with my government. That's why you won't see much sympathy for law enforcement in these situations.

You're not stuck with your government, you could move elsewhere, probably about as easily as a border patrol employee could find another job.

I don't know where the line is, but it's pretty clear that the customs agent is on the other side if it from the Nazi guard. It's certainly somewhere in between those two.

> I certainly don't know or care if those questions are mandated by Congress. (I don't find it hard to believe that they were though, or at least mandated by a group set up by Congress for that purpose.) It doesn't really matter.

> What I'm sure of is that they weren't mandated by the any of the people who questioned our author, especially if there are check boxes for them in some software. They probably weren't mandated by anyone who had ever met any of the author's victims, or even heard of them. And the people who mandated them will most likely never even hear of this guy or the handful of nutjobs like him.

They probably weren't mandated by anyone at all, or at least, no one with the rightful author authority to mandate answering such questions. Thus, it's valuable to the rest of us that some exceptional people will assert their right not to answer.

The inalienable right to re-entry as a citizen is an interesting point that I hadn't thought of before. I'm glad he went through all this drama so we could think about that.

I worry about his notion of having an inalienable right not to answer questions, though. The limits to your rights at the nation's borders can be surprising. Can border police deny you entry into the country? It seems, on reflection, that they cannot. Can border police arrest you, detain you for long periods of time, and book you for crimes that you may in fact be convicted of? I worry that the answers to this question aren't as crisply aligned with this guy's libertarianism as he hopes.

his notion of having an inalienable right not to answer questions, though

/His/ notion?

Can border police arrest you, detain you for long periods of time, and book you for crimes that you may in fact be convicted of? I worry that the answers to this question aren't as crisply aligned with this guy's libertarianism as he hopes.

He seems more the kind of person to make the answers align with his view, rather than hope they already do.

Throughout the United States, you have an almost unlimited right to be free from searches by law enforcement absent probable cause that can be demonstrated in court.


* This doesn't apply at the border.

* Regardless of whether the police have a right to search you, anything you do to obstruct a police search can be used as the basis of an orthogonal criminal charge.

Similarly, throughout the United States, you have an almost unrestricted right not to answer questions from law enforcement.

I ask:

* Accepting that the outcome of not cooperating cannot be denial of reentry, to what extent does this principle apply at the border? The right to be free of unreasonable search is at the core of the bill of rights, and the word "reasonable" seems to mean "all bets are off at the border".

* Regardless of whether police have a right to question you, things you do to obstruct them may be the basis of orthogonal criminal charges. For instance, Terry stops, Hiibel, &c.

Generally, as an avid civil liberties enthusiast with zero legal qualifications, my perception is that your rights are at their practical zenith in a courtroom, and at their nadir in a confrontation with on-duty law enforcement.

"Regardless of whether the police have a right to search you, anything you do to obstruct a police search can be used as the basis of an orthogonal criminal charge."

No--you cannot ever be charged or convicted on the basis of asserting your rights. Saying "you may not search my house" is not grounds for a search warrant, and exercising your fifth amendment right against self-incrimination in a trial is not grounds for conviction.

Physically or otherwise obstructing an actual police search in progress can be illegal or serve as probable cause, but asserting your rights never is.

> No--you cannot ever be charged or convicted on the basis of asserting your rights.

You can, however, be legally required to give cops your full, legal name. And you may also be required to say that you are invoking your right to remain silent (rather than simply keeping your mouth shut the whole time). Both have been subject to litigation recently.

You assert that this does not apply at the border, but you miss the fact that nowhere in the constitution are these rights set up as exceptions "near borders with other states". All of the amendments that make up the bill of rights are absolute statements, thruout the country.

I think that the legal concept is that "airside" at the airport and the no-man's-land are not proper US soil but some kind of quasi-international place (which is also why foreign citizens are allowed to wander there without visas if they have connecting flights and why you can buy duty-free merchandise there in countries where that's relevant). There's probably a name for this.

So if you walk up to the desk, you're standing on non-US soil and the desk guy is standing on US soil and trying to decide whether to let you across to the other side.

You'll note that the Constitution doesn't actually state where the borders of US soil are.

> inalienable right to re-entry as a citizen

Yes, for which he cites a trial court in Puerto Rico. Very convincing...

I'm not saying he's wrong, but isn't there binding authority on this point? Instead of just something that's only relevant *inside Puerto Rico"?

There is a difference between being a Citizen and a subject.

You are not obligated to sit meekly while your rights are being nibbled at or outright violated by "people just doing their jobs".

They didn't hold him for refusing to answer. They held him because he was suspicious. That's their job. When everything checked out and they couldn't find anything wrong, they had to let him go.

He was only there for half an hour. 30 minutes. That's not an unreasonable time at all when you've done something suspicious like answer routine questions rudely.

Don't get me wrong. I think our airport security is absolutely useless at this point. I haven't flown on a plane for a decade because I won't submit to that useless idiocy. (I might do so if it weren't useless, despite the 'freedoms' lost.)

30 minutes is less time than I've spent actually entering the country through that same airport.

When I briefly worked for a "Three Letter Agency" we were told that the only answer we were allowed to give to any question like this to any of our own or foreign officials was "work of a confidential nature in the national interest"

It works well if you can do it with a straight face!

That is great! I bet it works like a free pass if you match their notion of a NSA, CIA, NRO employee.

I bet it works like a jail sentence[1] if they have some way of checking whether you actually are an employee of a three-letter agency and you aren't one.

[1] Or a hefty fine, or some other variety of considerable nuisance.

Why? What law do you think you are breaking by saying that?

Adding jobs is in the national interest, right? You could be doing that by traveling.

You're not saying to whom the matter is confidential.

My client work abroad is certainly confidential, though the US government may not care, the client does.

I guess "unshaven hippie with long hair" isn't the best look to pull this off, huh? If I faked a military bearing would they assume I was one of those military intelligence types that doesn't shave and has long hair just to throw people off from thinking he's a military intelligence type?

Way to go. The only way to be sure that we have certain rights is to exercise them. Thanks for inconveniencing yourself on our behalf. I'm inspired to do the same.

His position that "politeness would make no difference", combined with other remarks he has made, suggests to me he simply doesn't know how to be genuinely polite and respectful of others. He reminds me of a woman I am passingly acquainted with who insisted that when things began to go south in business negotiations and other social settings, there was nothing you could do to stop it. Well, maybe there was nothing she could do. That doesn't mean it can't be done. (From observation of her, her attitude seemed to bring a lot of her troubles to her. She was quite combative, high-handed and so on.)

I'm all for not setting foot on the slippery slope. I am a firm believer that acting to protect your rights before there is a problem is the best policy. But assuming an adversarial relationship does not mean one needs to go out of their way to ensure that the relationship is as adversarial as possible.

I think it is a good thing that he refused to answer the questions -- I respect that.

But I find his aggressive attitude ("But that’s a small price to pay to remind these thugs that their powers are limited and restricted.") and obsession with the master/slave relationship ("I am the master, and the federal cops are my servants") to be fairly off putting.

It is not that he does not want master/slave relationships to exist, it is that he wants (nay, needs) always to be the master. He strikes me as the sort of person who would say something offensive just so that he could make a point about freedom of speech.

The world I see is not viewed through the same prism of master/slave relationships. In my world I am the master of myself. I am no ones slave and no one is my slave. It is a happy place to be.

I simply provide a non-answer. I used to say "business" but lately they've been asking 5 minutes worth of follow-up questions about what type of business I'm in and where in the visited country I conducted this business and with whom. Now I say "to visit friends and family". This answer ends the questions instantly. I haven't gotten a follow-up yet. They seem to have a checkbox for this answer and that's that.

I'm glad that there are guys out there doing this sort of thing. Its important. But for me, who just wants to get through as quickly as possible, I try to remember that even though its interface is human beings, its really just a poorly constructed machine. Give it the right tokens and the turnstile spins.

I think lying about your activities can get you into some actual trouble - so this could be risky advice if they follow up on who you were visting.

In fact he specifically mentions that in the follow up point.

What is extremely worrying is the comment that 'they have a checkbox for that'.

What the hell are they doing recording the reasons for movement of law abiding citizens?

What the hell are they doing recording the reasons for movement of law abiding citizens?

They don't know that you're law-abiding, for one thing. Law enforcement agencies routinely record information which is volunteered to them.

>They don't know that you're law-abiding, for one thing

Guilty until proven innocent, eh?

Police investigate lots of innocent people. If they only investigated people who were already known to be guilty, they would never get anywhere.

Police are supposed to investigate crimes. Not arbitrary people.

They're investigating lots of crimes. Drug smuggling, for example -- they know it's happening, but they don't know who is doing it; and anyone entering the country could have useful information about it or be a potential suspect.

So would you be OK with the police randomly picking members of the public to investigate - just in case those people are doing something illegal somewhere?

No, he hasn't been arrested or accused of anything.

The fallacy here is the assumption that they know who is law abiding and who isn't.

He mentions anecdotal evidence that they haven't followed up with him on that issue. Doesn't mean lying to them isn't problematic.

So far, there's pretty much always a friend and/or family where I've gone. I suppose if I go to do business exclusively with enemies, I might revise my answer.

Also, his comments in the follow up about refusing to answer to avoid the possibility of that answer being used later against you (no matter what you say) do have legal merit, but I don't feel that they are entirely practical. I think it more likely that they will attempt to concoct charges against you for refusing to answer their questions (drawing both attention to yourself and their ire) than answering the question in the most innocuous way possible.

I hate saying it more each time I do, but the best practical defense against law enforcement run amok is always to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.

I hate saying it more each time I do, but the best practical defense against law enforcement run amok is always to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.

I believe there's a Martin Niemöller quote that'd be quite apropos here...

An experienced traveler friend used to always reply "tourism", no matter what the purpose of her visit, with good results. YMMV.

He discussed the problem with this in the follow-up post, which was prominently linked to the top of the post submitted here.

The wider issue here that I don't see anyone really addressing is why are US Citizens interviewed/interrogated (even casually, at the CBP desk) about their activities.

I'm a British Citizen living in the US (so I'm mandated to fully answer all questions because I have no pre-governed right to entry into the US) but when I return home to UK they scan my passport and wave on me - no questions at all.

Regardless of this individual case, as a wider issue I don't understand why people (US Citizens) accept as policy and expected MO that CPB routinely asks the level of questioning that they do to citizens.

Quick question from a foreigner: Did they ask him that because he went to China, or does this happen for other "less suspicious" nations (France, UK etc.), too?

I just recently came back from Japan. It was my first time leaving the country. Going into Japan was great, very straightforward, polite, and fast. I actually had a question; they ask "Where are you staying?" on the form, but I didn't know. I was meeting my girlfriend in-country, and she had made all of our reservations, and I forgot to ask her for a copy. The woman smiled and said "No problem, just write Tokyo" and that was it.

Coming back into America was terrible. I did answer these questions, and the officer tried to imply that I had tripped up, and was getting in trouble. (I live in PA, but my ticket was back to LAX only.) Then, while walking through to the 'collect your baggage' part, another officer stopped me, told me to get in a different line, since I'd collected no checked baggage. I told him I didn't have any, his eyes narrowed, and he started asking me more questions. I was like "Dude, I'm a guy. I have this huge backpack. I was only gone a week. Why would I need a suitcase?" and after a few more questions finally let me go.

I don't fly unless I absolutely have to. It's just not worth the hassle.

Counter examples:

I fly in and out of the country all the time (I believe I've returned the the US five times this year alone). I only ever have a backpack and it's not huge and I never check any luggage. I'm not dressed in business clothes, nor do I look particularly affluent. My passport is fully of "dangerous" countries (Colombia, Guatemala, China, Russia...) and is as beat up an scruffy looking as I am.

I have never once has trouble returning to the US.

In fact, I flew back from Mexico (several years ago, but post 9/11) without anything but a driver's license and even then didn't have any problems other than answering some reasonable questions.

I've heard anecdotally that it's more difficult for foreigners entering the US, but that's to be expected. Pretty much every country on the planet is harder for non-citizens to enter.

Oh, and for the record, I'm in Japan right now (for the first time) and their CBP was far more serious than anywhere else I've been and took longer to process everyone than anywhere I've been except Dulles (fuck that airport). I was finger printed and photographed (yes, yes, I know the US does this for non-citizens too) and this is highly atypical.

I visited Japan last year, and while I was fingerprinted and photographed, the process was very quick. I spent about the same amount of time at the customs official's desk as I did when I returned home to the US, where I was asked the typical none-of-their-business questions about my trip.

So there we are... more anecdotal non-evidence.

Actually, this reminds me of my return from a business trip to Amsterdam a couple years ago. The customs official made some kind of drug-related joke/question, which I didn't respond to (aside from just smiling slightly). It made me a bit uncomfortable and felt like he was trying to get me to slip up and say something I'd regret.

> They ask "Where are you staying?" on the form, but I didn't know.

Note: as you might have suspected, if the situation was reversed you wouldn't get away so easily. Suppose your girlfriend is not American and she visits in you US. She must answer that question. Otherwise she might have to go thru some hassle or even be denied entry.

Counter-experience: I walked through customs with just a backpack after being in Europe for 2.5 weeks. Guy looks at me and says "you didn't check any bags?" and I responded "I travel light," with a bit of a grin on my face. He says "welcome home." It was a touching moment.

I usually print out my hotel confirmation email before I leave to bring along, but often I forget, especially when I'm on a biz trip and transportation to my hotel has been prearranged. Really, no one cares. I'd wouldn't suggest admitting to not knowing, but instead just write something -- anything -- down. No customs official knows the name of every hotel in the nearby city (pick an obvious one... "Tokyo Marriott" or whatever). If you're asked about the address, you can just say you're not sure, but you have a car waiting to pick you up.

Now, this is from experience as a US citizen traveling to Asia and Europe. I have no idea if US border control verifies the name and address of your hotel before letting you through.

This is an example of the douchebags they have to deal with at LAX:


They see that stuff all the time, and they get suspicious about unexplained features of baggage.

I've heard US customs described as an additional penalty on Americans who travel abroad.

I'm not sure about US citizens but of all the places I travel to, the experience of entering the US is the worst of all. I'm a UK citizen and we supposedly have a visa arrangement that should negate any hassle but it frequently takes more than an hour to clear border control.

During which time you have sniffer dogs almost clawing you and really aggressive questioning. I'm sure this must have a negative effect on the tourism industry as most people I know have had similar experiences.

I've just come back from traveling around Asia and they seem to take the opposite approach and employ polite and helpful people to work in border security, often when you're traveling this is the first impression you get of a country and bad experiences really leave a bad taste.

The U.S. border is awful. It was awful when I used to travel under visa waiver and if anything it got worse when I got my green card (currently fingerprinting, soon iris scans, in addition to abusive questioning). Edit: it is like a welcome mat that has dog vomit on it and spells FUCK YOU. I really appreciate it, makes me feel right at home.

Citizens are in a slightly better position as the fellow demonstrated but the U.S. border is worse than any of the other 35 or so that I have crossed.

I'm a US citizen, and while I don't share the pain you describe, I do feel like it's easier and more pleasant (for me) to get into other countries than to get back into my own.

It sure does have a negative effect. I've been to the US, and I'm not going back unless I really have to due to their beyond anal border security.

Of course they're increasingly exporting that to their allies in Europe too, the UK is especially bad in this regard.

Interestingly, that's about the exact experience I had as an American flying into London City. The UK is one of the most obnoxious border I've ever crossed (Nicaragua was worse, but that was a lot more complicated because I was bringing in a vehicle).

In my experience it depends largely on the airport you're flying into in the US. Dulles, Philly, and any of the NYC airports all see to be the worst. Seatac, SFO, Houston, and LAX aren't really that bad in my experience.

You gotta admit those dogs are pretty cute though.

US CBP is always a pain in the ass. I never have as much trouble entering any foreign country as I do reentering my own. Ludicrous, really.

Ultimately, the cops let me go, because there was nothing they could do.

In this particular instance it may have seemed this way, but if you continue, you will likely find out it's not really true. They'd just rather not go to the effort of doing what they can do. Enforcement is selective, so unless you think you can get a lot of attention in time to do you some good, it's best to pick your battles wisely.

"They'd just rather not go to the effort of doing what they can do."

What do you think police can do? He cites case law that indicates police can't prevent you from re-entering the country.

If they're annoyed enough, they can find something you did do, and charge you for it. Depending on how visibly you live your life, this might be easy or difficult, but ultimately they can just "remember" something you said that you didn't say, and then you could go to jail. All this is chancy, since the jury, should it come to that, may be sympathetic to you, but if you're habitually confrontational, that might be less likely. Basically, the Martha Stewart conviction destroyed what remained of my faith in the "justice" system. Here was a woman who, in theory, had the deck stacked her way... money, fame, etc. What was she convicted of? Lying to a federal officer, not under oath, about not committing a crime that they couldn't convict her of in the first place. The conclusive evidence basically boiled down to one or more officers' word that she denied wrongdoing.

Let me recap: if some police are determined to put you in jail, you can go to jail for lying to an officer, when you assert that you didn't commit a crime. They do not have to prove that you did commit the crime. Just saying you didn't do it is presumptively a lie, and a federal crime. If you give them reason to be mad at you, you're gambling with your freedom, no matter what you have or haven't done.

Note that not talking to the police is not sufficient to save you from prosecution, since the vast majority could be considered guilty of misprision of felony -- http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/usc_sec_18_00000004----... -- which is itself a federal felony, so if someone tells you they saw a felony committed (possession, say) and you know they didn't report it, now you're committing a felony unless you report them.

The mention about the records they keep (agents discussing the author's history of not answering questions) got me wondering what CBP has in their files about me and my movements across the border. At one point I read people on Flyertalk discussing how they sent FOIA requests for the pertinent records, but what they got back had all the juicy stuff (officers notes, etc) redacted.

The rights the author describes his exercise of can be swept away with the stroke of a pen, and once that happens, they won't be coming back.

I think we should applaud someone for having the courage to stand up for their basic rights.

I don't think you should always take the path of least resistance.

"The stroke of a pen" in the United States' case involves a majority vote in the Senate and agreement by the President (or else a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate). This is of course significantly more difficult to attain than many other pen strokes.

(I suspect I agree with your sentiment, but your post is vague on your actual opinion of the matter.)

This isn't quite true anymore. Over the last 2 centuries the President has little-by-little become more like a King. What I mean by that is that he has gained more powers that an absolute authority, like a King, would have. For example, the President has the power to write executive orders, which have the effect of law.

 While true that these orders can be challenged by congress, they normally aren't likely due to human nature (it's easier to say no to an idea than to stop somebody who has momentum). The end result of this is that the President now has the power to basically write laws. If he is not happy with Congress's opinion, he can take matters into his own hands. On most issues he gives deference to the law-making body's authority, but the power is always in his hands to act; in other words politically and practically he is held in check on most issues by Congress and is obviously not a King (ie he can't act unilaterally), but as time passes he gets more of the power that a King would have.

Edited for clarity

It's not clear what you'd do with the people if you did remove an unconditional right to reentry, either. If someone has only one nationality, and that country won't allow them in, then they become effectively stateless, which is a mess, since international law generally assumes that people have nationalities. Then someone like the UN has to try to figure out where they can be sent.

I actually assumed the right we were talking about was the right to remain silent, which would require a constitutional amendment to repeal. I am not so sure about the right to reenter one's own country.

All the more reason to exercise them as fervently as possible.

No they won't, but if you actually use them, they are not going to disappear.

Do you have any rights whatsoever, if you're a foreigner entering America?

You obviously have some human rights. They can't (legally) harm you physically without any reason, afaik.

You have all sorts of rights. The main one you don't have is the right to get into the country, and that's the only one which really matters.

So definitely do not try this trick if you're a foreigner attempting to enter the US.

On one hand I agree that it's important to stand up for your rights, even it might seem like a trivial thing to argue at the time. Especially with how the TSA/Border control is evolving into less of a means of security than into an interrogation theater, it's important for us to know just how far an officer can legally question/search us and not to let them overstep those bounds. Once those bounds are crossed, it's hard (impossible?) to go back.

On the other hand, the guy kind of acted like a jerk. He could have done the same thing without seeming so short and unfriendly. Even the most power-mad officers are still people with a basic job to do.

Edit: having read his follow-up post, he makes some good points on the politeness issue. I guess I'm just happy there are people like him to have to the balls (and time to spare) to remind enforcers that they too must follow the law, even if it means a huge inconvenience for him.

He addresses the politeness issue in the follow up by saying, quite rightly:

To the authoritarian mind, there are only two responses to a demand: submission or defiance, and anything less than total submission is defiance.

You realize that just because he says that doesn't mean it's actually true, right?

In fact, his argument for being brusque doesn't square with his argument for the inalienability of his rights to silent re-entry. If he's right about the latter, he has no reason to "assert the fact that he won't be pushed around"; he won't be pushed around either way.

I'm left with the conclusion that I'm reading about a major-league douchebag... one who I'm glad is defining the frontiers of our rights as citizens, but a douchebag nonetheless.

You're missing what I think is one of the primary points he's trying to make - answering any of those questions instantly puts him at risk of lying to a federal officer, which is a criminal act.

In order to be polite, you have to risk being a criminal. Ergo, it makes more sense to be a little rude (and being silent isn't that rude, _particularly_ to a federal officer - for them being silent is simply one of a series of acceptable responses) and forgo the risk of criminal charges. Are you being a douchebag to a police officer when you refuse consent to a search?

He also lists a number of countries in which Customs and Immigration believe their job is "Customs and Immigration" and _not_ getting historical biographical information.

There really is a fundamental privacy issue.

True Story:

I was crossing the border from Canada into the United States in 2003, and was with a friend (an attractive blonde, Canadian, that I had declared our relationship to be "friend") at a ground crossing (Peace Arch, in BC) - we were pulled over for secondary, and went into the Immigration office. They asked us a number of questions, all of which I answered to be the best of my ability (I have neither the courage, nor moral fiber of the author - wish I did) - and they were preparing to let us go. Just as we were packing up our passports, and leaving, the Immigration Officer pulled a "Columbo" and said, "Oh, one more thing - are you still dating that Red Head, Marjorie?" I was a little floored - I had crossed the border _once_ with a (red headed) girlfriend in 1999 - that information (that we were dating, the color of her hair, her name) was clearly in a federal file on me, and they were using it to get a reaction from my companion (who, thank goodness, was actually a friend as I had described her).

So, from a privacy perspective, just be aware that as you answer all of these questions, they are going into a federal database, that certainly can paint quite a detailed pictured of your life. If you are willing to remain silent, then they have less to enter into their database.

It's interesting how when people buck the status-quo, even just a little bit, they get tagged with the "douchebag" title. God bless them.

EDIT: As a follow-on, I should note that as a Canadian, I really have no excuse not to answer all questions asked by American Customs and Immigration, but, very ironically, as a TN Computer Systems Analyst, I am almost _never_ asked any questions _whatsoever_ by American C&I, and the rare time they ask me anything, it is always the single (very reasonable) "Who are you working for". Returning to Canada, on the other hand, is an exercise in what did I do in the US, where I'll be going, what I'll be doing, who I'll be staying with, for how long, etc, etc...

You have a drastically diminished expectation of privacy at the border, because of the state's sovereign right to regulate those borders. This is a large part of the reason why border police can search you at will; the "reasonableness" of a search is largely delineated by the balance of the state's legitimate interests in searching you against your expectation of privacy.

You seem taken aback that the state would remember your previous border-crossings. I'm actually impressed and sort of pleased that they're this on-the-ball. It seems totally reasonable to me for the state to keep a record of aliens crossing into the country.

And beyond that, it seems weird that record keeping would shock your conscience, but the fact that the border police can search the files on your laptop without a warrant (which: they can, according to the 4th and 9th circuit courts) doesn't warrant a mention.

Lawyer and patriot or not, this guy is living in a fantasy world, where the "business or pleasure" question is a sticky spider web patrolled by venomous legal monsters, but warrantless searches of his person, his body cavities, the documents in his briefcase and the files on his computer are totally benign.

I don't think that searches are ok for him according to item no. 9 from his update:

Moreover, the existence of the right of privacy is usually based on whether people have a current expectation of privacy in a certain situation. To the extent that people decline to assert their right of privacy, it slips away. Lack of vigilance by citizens begets more government power.

I'm not of the opinion that my expectation of privacy is diminished at the border. My expectation of privacy is diminished at the border, because the Supreme Court ruled that it is so, definitively.

You can be polite without giving any more information.

"Did you go to China for business or pleasure?"

"I'm sorry, but as a US citizen, my rights enable me to refuse to answer any questions you ask. I am invoking that right."

You can even leave out the "I'm sorry" if you want. You make it clear why you are doing this, which means you get to protect yourself and educate others.

You don't have to be a jerk to defend your rights, and I firmly believe you will be more effective (generally) at defending those rights.

Here is well researched 24 page report on what courts have found to be what your rights are at a border crossing


Some surprises to me are that you can be detained for 4 to 6 hours as part of routine screening and body cavity searched without a warrant if you simply match a profile.

It is well researched by I find the logic justifying warrant-less search specious:

"It has long been established that border crossers’ reasonable expectation of privacy is lower at the border because they generally expect border guards to search persons and property for contraband. Because this is common knowledge, border crossers are put on notice when approaching a border that a search may be imminent, and thus their privacy is “less invaded by [border] searches” when they occur."

More generally that means: We blatantly violate so many people's rights that they're not really being violated.

I don't love the logic at play here either but feel compelled to note that, like it or not, it is the logic that every court in the land will use. Your rights at our country's borders are limited. The Supreme Court has held these limitations to be constitutional. Disagree or not, your only recourse may involve a constitutional amendment.

Eventually the criminals who believe that our only recourse is a constitutional amendment, and are counting on the difficulty of obtaining one, will be in for a rude awakening.

The pragmatic civil libertarian might choose to open with something like "Respectfully, I don't believe I have to answer that one. We can discuss it with my attorney present if you disagree."

This has additional value in that the person you are speaking to is taught something and doesn't leave the encounter just thinking you are an ass.

I guess politeness can be one of those grey area kinds of things, but when somebody replies "none of your business" to a question of mine, I usually find it a little rude. Alternatively he could have explained his reasoning for remaining silent instead of just doing so; that might have educated (sadly) some of the officers as to why he was acting that way while appearing polite and retaining his rights.

Nonetheless, to the human mind, there are plenty of shades of grey. If you're trying to convince (both them and the blog-reading public), you'd do well not to act as if everything's black and white. see also: Stallman.

One of my favorite quotes: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man." (George Bernard Shaw)

Stallman's complete and total unwillingness to bend at all occasionally grates on my nerves.

I am also grateful for it.

That's an opinion, not demonstrated fact, and one I don't agree with.

Customs officials may be in some position of authority, but they are still people. People generally prefer to be treated with respect, politeness, and civility. Your every interaction with someone in authority is not an alpha-male/top-dog struggle for dominance.

Regardless of that, there's a difference between polite defiance and rude defiance, often a big one. Odds are you'll get a better response from the former, one that allows you to exercise your rights without coming off as a dick. At the very least it's easier to earn sympathy if you're still mistreated.

I agree, would it have killed him to just say "business" when asked about his trip -- he reveals exactly nothing by saying that.

He got away with this only because he is a white, native English speaker.

You have remarkably few rights at a border crossing. Four to six hours detentions have been ruled by courts as ok as routine searches, and invasive body cavity searches can be performed without a warrant with the vaguest suspicion. Here is a well researched report on what courts have ruled are your rights when crossing the border. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/RL31826.pdf

> I agree, would it have killed him to just say "business" when asked about his trip...

...and, again, answered specifically this point in the follow-up post, which was prominently linked to the top of the post submitted here.

That makes at least three HN commenters that weren't bothered to read the second post, so far.

As for,

> ...and invasive body cavity searches can be performed without a warrant with the vaguest suspicion.

I followed your link and read portions of it. I especially found this section chilling:

"For example, in United States v. Forbicetta, the court found reasonable suspicion to exist where Customs officials acted on the following objective facts: the suspect (1) arrived from Bogota, Colombia, (2) was traveling alone, (3) had only one suitcase and no items requiring Customs inspection, (4) was young, clean-looking, and attractive, and (5) was wearing a loose-fitting dress. These factors taken together matched the “smuggling profile” for narcotic carriers in that area, and thus, the court concluded there was a sufficient basis to conduct the search."

I looked up the case. In this case, Forbicetta was indeed smuggling an appreciable amount of cocaine under her dress. I will also grant that in this case the CBP showed a high degree of professional training and accurately profiled her.

However, I am extremely unsettled that the factors listed, taken together, represent a legal basis for invasive search.

As a more practical matter, whenever articles from guys like Paul Lukacs come along, and some part of my brain says to me, "this guy is tilting at windmills", I find myself soon reading something else that supports their crusade altogether.

You are right -- it is best not to say anything. But be prepared for being detained for 6 hours as part of a "routine" search.

There must be some way to poliely tell them you decline to answer any questions. Maybe "I am sorry but I have been advised not to answer any questions."

He is a lawyer, and most lawyers would advise their clients that the less they say, the better. Your example would lead to a neat follow-up question, "Who advised you?", which -- according to the document you linked -- might be considered legal grounds for a non-routine search!

The legal arena takes rationality and the rules of debate to their most absurd possible conclusions, and therefore doesn't work in ways that you or I would consider intuitive.

Or, more succintly: politeness could land you in court.

The only creepy bit I find about that is that "young, clean-looking, and attractive" was included in the logic they used to look up her dress.

If I were writing the report I would have left the bit where "We decided to look up her dress because she was young and atractive".

Personally I'm guessing that your demeanour upon aproaching the customs desk tells a customs officer a lot (which is why they ask you some harmless questions about what you were doing while overseas). If I had a million bucks' worth of cocaine stuffed up my dress I'd probably be nervous enough to give them the idea that something was up, if they're cleverly trained to notice the signs of nervousness among people who are trying to hide them.

See point 4 in his follow-up post (http://knifetricks.blogspot.com/2010/09/10-brief-responses-t...)

"You say “business” (because you were at a conference) but the stamps in your passport indicate that you’re returning from a tourist destination like Bali. Now the officer can argue that you have made a false statement, have engaged in an attempt to claim improper business deductions under the Internal Revenue Code and have broken any other federal criminal law -- there are more than 10,000 -- which he can mold around the circumstances."

In the EU, airport authorities will refuse to stamp your EU passport, even if you ask them to (travel geek, I wanted the stamp). As an EU citizen you may not be denied entry to any EU country and stamping your passport would imply that they had the right to either allow or deny entry.

I seriously wondered if he would have saved the half hour by answering the first question with "I have the right not to answer that question as I am a citizen re-entering my own country" instead of "None of your business"

The former would still be asserting his right, but in a more polite way

Regardless of whether its the CBP officer in the airport or a police officer on the street, the key friction point is that if everyone demands full exercise of their rights (ultimately, not to talk or interact with the officer, other than prove identity) it would be near-impossible for them to perform their function of catching criminals, terrorists, etc.

Or, to put it another way, we EXPECT that people won't exercise their full rights as part of our expectation that the police and CPB officials are able to to carry out their job.

Regardless of how you stand on the original issue of the OP, it's worth considering for a moment that our policing system relies, in the main, on people not up-holding their rights in order to succeed.

While it might be strictly true that a US-ian can't be denied entry to the US, recall that there is no constitutional right to any particular mode of travel... One can "enter" the US in various foreign airports (Shannon, several in Canada) and doing a "nope, I'm not talkin'" gig will probably result in a "well, you ain't flyin' either".

I also worry that being too hostile with one's baggage might get it blown up. Certainly get it inspected closely. Might not be too good for cameras, laptops and other storage media.

You watch too much TV.

I thought I had problems when travelling to San Francisco's Web 2.0 Expo this year but I never thought customs officers would make you as US Citizen problems. Crazy!

US citizens may have more to worry about, actually, since the most they're likely to do to a non-citizen is refuse entry, but a citizen could easily wind up in jail for years for, in the recollection of the officer, lying to a federal officer. That was all Martha Stewart was convicted of, after all.

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