Friday, April 2, 2010

Smuggler's Blues

Car Trouble Leads to a Tense Encounter
"An increase in smuggling activities has pushed the Border Patrol to the front line of the U.S. war on drugs." —Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website

Heading north from San Diego on a beautiful Spring morning, my car's clutch began to slip. I eased into the far right lane. There were no grinding noises, no smoke billowing out the back, so I decided it was safe to limp home. As I passed through the inspection station near San Clemente, I saw the dreaded flashing lights in my rearview mirror. It wasn't the highway patrol.
     It was the Border Patrol.
     For good measure, the agent let out a couple of squawks from his siren. I pulled over as quickly as humanly possible. As I rolled down my window, he began to berate me because I didn't pull over fast enough. "Didn't you see my lights?" He stopped short of adding "you moron," but the tone was there.
     They need to allow reaction time for the initial shock. What the hell does the Border Patrol want with me? Do they think I have aliens in the trunk?
     My languid pullover came up again later in the interrogation. Apparently it is a pet peeve of law enforcement that perps don't respond immediately when they get "lit up." The second complaint: Why were you going so slow? I was just following traffic, I said. "You were only going 40 miles an hour," the agent charged. "If I was going that slow it was only because of traffic in front of me." He seemed not to hear my car trouble explanation. He was building an air-tight case. A deranged slowpoke! A plodding pullover!
     40 mph! It was a wild accusation. Even the slowest vehicles ahead of me seldom dipped below 60. It was either a bald-faced lie or he needed to justify in his own mind his perfectly good reason for stopping me. True, I did slow to 40, but only AFTER he lit me up.
     The young agent asked me where I was going, where I had been, and the reason for the outing. He asked if he could "have a look around" in my car. The request got my hackles up right away. Going too slow didn't seem to justify a cop rifling through my personal belongings.
     "If you don't want to consent, that's fine," he said. "I'll call for the canine."
     "Better call the canine," I said. The agent took my license and radioed for the sniffer. I was invited to step out of the car.
     While the agent busied himself inside his cruiser awaiting the results of various criminal database searches, his partner took over the interrogation. The gleam in his eye suggested gleeful anticipation that a major bust was about to go down.
     The second agent was the friendly one, the classic "good-cop bad-cop" pairing. He wore a heavy black vest (Kevlar?) with the legend "FEDERAL AGENT" across the chest. He took me through a detailed interrogation regarding my recent whereabouts, with several attempts to trip me up and get me to change my "story." Where do you live? Where have you been? How long were you there? What were you doing? Where are you going? Do you own the car? Do you own everything in the car?
     Would I have been within my rights to simply refuse to answer? What if, under the pressure of intensive questioning, I had inadvertently misstated some detail of my whereabouts? Would that have justified taking me in for further interrogation?
     While we waited for the canine, I did my best to cheerfully cooperate. Knowing they had no case, absolutely no grounds to detain me, I didn't shrink from a bit of cat-and-mouse verbal sparring with the agent. After the third or fourth run-through of my itinerary, I couldn't resist a bit of sarcasm. "You need to write this down," I offered. He took the jibe in stride. All in a morning's work for the Border Patrol.
     "Do you get pulled over a lot?" Hardly ever, I said. "That's why you need to be more understanding about not pulling over right away. If you don't get a lot of practice, how can you master the proper pull-over?"
     "Still, you should have pulled over back there," he said, gesturing to a place perhaps 100 yards behind us, within view of the Border Patrol station. "It would have been safer." In the grand scheme of things, how could 100 yards make such a difference? It occurred to me that they would have preferred me to stop in front of the station so fellow agents could watch the bust unfold.
     The sniffer arrived, led by his green-uniformed handler. He explained that if the dog "alerted" on anything, I would have to submit to a search. The dog was a scrawny brown mutt, not the typical handsome German Shepherd I was expecting. When I glanced at the dog, the friendly agent had another question: Do you have any pets? Why not?
     In a near-frenzy, the canine worked his nose over the car, sniffing the tires, the bumpers, the trunk, the doors, the hood. He yipped and yelped. Crap! He's alerting on the whole car! I bought my car used. What if it had been a smuggler's ride in its prior life?
     Try as he might, the sniffer came up empty. On his way back to his cruiser, the canine guy shot me an evil stare, as if to say "We didn't get you this time, but your day will come."
     I saw that look, I told my interrogator. "He's not mad," he assured me, "he's just a serious guy." By now, after about 30 minutes, the friendly agent and I were on pretty good terms.
     The first agent emerged from his cruiser and gave me back my license. I was free to go.
     No, I did not say "thank you."

I felt sympathy for the young agent who pulled me over. In my imagination, his pained look suggested a dawning awareness that this wasn't the best crime-fighting move of his career. For good form, he might have just glanced in my trunk and sent me on my way. But once the dance is joined it has to be carried out to its absurd conclusion. Then again, maybe the pained look was just the result of a bad burrito.
     I wonder now much luck the Border Patrol has with profiling slow vehicles. Surely the smugglers are wise to it. I'm guessing even the slow-witted grasp the need to blend in with faster traffic.
     It's scary to be detained by grim-faced officers who have complete power over you and appear to have every hope you will make their day. My retelling of the incident drew a lot of reaction from friends, including "Good for you" for not consenting to a search. Being sarcastic, they said, was just asking for trouble. "You're lucky they didn't plant something," or "They could have hauled you away and beaten the crap out of you."
     I don't harbor any ill feelings against the agents. I'm sure they were following the Drug Interdiction Handbook to the letter. I guess I fall into the same category as feeble old grandmothers who get full body searches at the airport. They may look harmless, but you can never be too careful.

Could have been me.

2 comments: said...

"You picked the wrong parish to haul ass through" Sheriff J.W. Pepper.

Meg said...

I have a friend that has come over the border in the floor of a panel van about 6 times. Every couple of years he gets hauled back...only to cozy back into the floorboards of a trusty van and get on back to the other side. It usually takes about three days of living in the floor of the van before he gets back to the east coast. I can't even imagine. He is such a normal, average, happy, sweet guy too. I can't even picture him doing such a thing...though I am guessing he has a scrappy side that he just doesn't have a use for when he is functioning in a "civilized" manner in society.
So even though these border patrol guys act all tough...they ain't too tough for my scrappy friend. I like the fact he continues to stick it to them time and time again.