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Canadian Customs - A Situation and some Comments/Questions

Canadian Customs - A Situation and some Comments/Questions

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Old Mar 6, 09, 11:23 am
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CDF
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Canadian Customs - A Situation and some Comments/Questions

FYI: This isn't a rant or rave - it's just a little venting about a situation that I ran into a couple of weeks ago crossing into Canada and was hoping someone who is familiar with customs procedures may be able clarify for me. I apologize in advance for being very long-winded but I wanted to make sure that I included all of the pertinent details.

Background:

I own a home in the U.S. (Michigan) and in Canada (Windsor) and travel between the two at least once a week. I've never had any problems crossing the border in either direction and always declare any goods that I'm bringing over. Normally I travel over to Canada via the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and back to the U.S. via the Ambassador Bridge (the tunnel is closer to the house in Michigan and the bridge is closer to the house in Canada). There have been a couple of times where I've declared something and had to pull over to pay taxes and a couple of times where I've been pulled over for a random inspection. In these instances I've had no problems with being pulled over since I recognize that the customs folks are just doing their jobs. As a side note, I have a valid U.S. passport which I use each time I cross the border and have no criminal record or run-in's with the law.

Situation:

A couple of weeks ago I drove from my home in Michigan down to the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. Upon arriving at the tunnel I saw that traffic was backed up for quite a ways so I decided to drive the extra distance and cross over the bridge. When I got to the bridge crossing, there was very little traffic and it saved me a lot of time versus waiting to cross via the tunnel. When I reached the Canadian side of the bridge I pulled up to the customs booth and answered the usual questions (i.e. What are you bringing in? Do you have any tobacco or liquor? Etc.) I answered all of the questions truthfully and was then asked how often I cross into Canada. My response was that I usually cross at least once a week since I own a home in Canada as well as the U.S. When the customs agent shut his window I figured that I was going to be selected for a “random” inspection but I wasn’t really concerned. Sure enough when he opened the window again he handed me a yellow secondary screening slip and said that I needed to pull over for inspection. Since I had nothing to hide I didn’t think much about it as I pulled into the secondary screening station.

Upon arriving at the secondary screening area, two customs inspectors came out of the building (I suspect they were notified by the booth) and asked me to step out of the car. I exited the car and then handed the one inspector my yellow secondary screening slip. While the one inspector examined the screening slip, another inspector came out of the building with a rolling-cart/table. As I mentioned earlier, I had gone through secondary screenings before but never had someone bring a cart to my vehicle. Normally the customs inspector would go through everything in the car (luggage, etc.) and check to see if there was any “contraband” that wasn’t declared. In this case, I stood watching as two of the inspectors started pulling things from my car and setting them on the table. Once they everything pulled from the car they proceeded to check the car inside and out and then proceeded to go through all of the items on the table. While this was going on, the inspector who I handed the screening slip to was asking me more questions similar to the ones I had already answered at the booth.

Q: How often did I come to Canada? A: Once a week.
Q: Why was I coming to Canada? A: I own a home in Canada.
Q: Why was I bringing $1000 into Canada (I had a bank envelope with money in my passport valise)? A: I’m depositing it in the bank so I can pay my Canadian taxes.
Q: Have I ever crossed into Canada via Niagra Falls? Port Huron? Washington? A: No – I usually cross via the Detroit-Windsor tunnel but it was backed up so I decided to come across the bridge.
Q: Are you sure? A: Yes I’m positive since I’ve never been to those other border crossings.
Q: Have I ever been pulled over before? A: Yes – I had a couple of random inspections and one time I had to pay taxes/duty on some items that I was bringing in.
Q: How long have you been coming over to Canada on a regular basis? A: About 5 years.
Q: And you’ve only been pulled over a few times? A: Yes – I always declare anything I’m bringing in and don’t have anything to hide.

At this point a fourth inspector comes out of the building, says something to the one who was doing the questioning, and then I’m told that I’m free to go but I have to go to Immigration and show them my id. I’m thinking to myself – Immigration? Show them my id? Didn’t they already swipe my passport and then check it again during the secondary? I’ve never had to do that before but figure oh well – I need to get going. I should mention at this point that all of the customs people were very professional and very polite so I had no problem with the extra attention.

After going to the Immigration office, showing my id (again) and answering some of the same questions (again), the woman behind the counter stamps my screening slip and says I’m all set to go. Heading back to my vehicle I take a look at the screening slip and notice that the customs agent at the booth wrote “Previous Port Runner” at the bottom. This is where I started to get concerned since I had never had any problems before and never willfully violated the law. When I get back to my vehicle I handed a new customs agent (a different one from those that did the screening) the screening slip and then ask a question as to what they meant by “Previous Port Runner”. The agent replied, “I’m not at liberty to disclose that information”. My response was that usually if someone asks why they’re pulled over don’t the agents tell them? Her response was, “Once you cross the international border you’re not in the U.S. anymore. If you’ve only been pulled over a few times then you should consider yourself lucky”. Lucky? Why should I consider myself “lucky” if all I’m doing is following the rules. Since I didn’t want to get into a pissing match I just shook my head, got into my car and proceeded on my way.

The more I thought about the situation and the comment at the bottom of the screening slip the more concerned I became. Was I now flagged for something that I didn’t do? Was I going to be subjected to searches every time I crossed the border? Was I going to be banned from coming into Canada and run the risk of losing my house? The next day I went to the main customs office in downtown Windsor and spoke to the people there to see if they could tell me 1) What a “Previous Port Runner” was and 2) Was there anything in the system that “flagged” me and would prevent me from entering Canada? After consulting with a supervisor, the customs agent I spoke with came back and told me that there was nothing on my record other than I came over to Canada often. In regards to why the customs agent at the bridge wouldn’t tell me what “Previous Port Runner” meant he just rolled his eyes and said that there was no reason that she couldn’t have told me what it meant. When I inquired as to why the booth agent would have written that at the bottom of the screening slip the response I received was that it may have been a slip that had been started for someone else and that the booth agent just wrote my license plate number on it. While this last response didn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling at least I had some reassurance that I wasn’t mistakenly flagged in the system.

Summary:

While I’m used to having to go through customs and sometimes being sent to a secondary screening, this experience has caused me to loose some faith in the system. It’s a little disconcerting to be treated as though you’ve done something wrong and then not given an explanation of what you’ve supposedly done.

Observations:

  • With the exception of one person I think the way the Canadian customs agents handled themselves in this situation was very professional. All of the agents I spoke with (again with the one exception) were polite. I’ve found this to be the general rule with both the Canadian customs at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and the U.S. customs at the Ambassador Bridge. As with any profession there are going to be those that give the rest a bad name.
  • It’s disconcerting that people can be presumed guilty of something and then be put in the position of proving their innocence. After finding out what “Previous Port Runner” meant, I was a little angry at having being classified as such when I pride myself on being a law-abiding citizen. For those that don’t know, a “Previous Port Runner” is someone who was asked to pull over at customs but decided to skip the secondary screening. By writing this at the bottom of the secondary screening slip the customs agent at the booth implied that I was someone who had done this before and thus was entitled to extra special attention. I can guarantee that I’ve never skipped out on a secondary screening and have always pulled over when directed.

Question(s):
  1. I can understand that under some dictatorships that people don’t have the right to question why they’re being detained but I was under the impression that here in North America, people have the right to ask why they’re being pulled over. I believe that is true in the U.S. but what about in Canada? What about at border crossings in general? Do people who get stopped by any customs agents in the U.S. or Canada have the right to know why they’re being stopped?
  2. I’m fortunate in that I was able to discover that I’m not flagged in the Canadian system as not being able to enter the country. In the event that someone is incorrectly flagged as being an “undesirable” and refused entry, what recourse would they have? In my case, my screening slip incorrectly stated that I had previously skipped out on a secondary screening. What if the customs agent “accidentally” used a slip that had “Drug Runner” or “Rapist” or “Drunk Driver” written on the bottom? Is there any recourse that people have to clear their name if they are falsely accused of something? Again, I’m fortunate in that my name is supposedly “clear” in the Canadian system but I find it unfortunate that people are sometimes presumed guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

Sorry for the standing so long on the soapbox. Thanks for letting me vent and if anyone has answers to my two questions I’d appreciate the feedback.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 11:56 am
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I think the Canadian Border person is right. If you have crossed the border weekly for five years, you should consider yourself lucky. That's over 250 times, if you just multiply 5 (years) times 52 (weeks in a year).

The "we can't tell you" is nothing new. When I was a Canpass member, I got a new Passport in the middle of the tenure. Got stopped in Calgary, sent to secondary. No bag rummage or anything, just asked for my Passport. They disappeared for about 60 seconds with my Passport, came back and gave me my Passport. Asked what was up, they gave me the same response you got. Like you, nothing to worry about, just curious.

Bottom line: I wouldn't worry about it. Chances are you encountered an eager-beaver at the border. No worries.

But I do have one question and one suggestion:

Try to get the agent that is male and looks a little older than the college-age agents that are rampant among Canadian Border folks. That's not being sexist or age discriminatory, but I have had the least amount of problems with the folks who fit that description. Of course that was before I got NEXUS.

Which leads into my question.

Why aren't you a NEXUS member?
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Old Mar 6, 09, 12:05 pm
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Originally Posted by CDF View Post
Question(s):
[LIST=1][*]I can understand that under some dictatorships that people don’t have the right to question why they’re being detained but I was under the impression that here in North America, people have the right to ask why they’re being pulled over. I believe that is true in the U.S. but what about in Canada? What about at border crossings in general? Do people who get stopped by any customs agents in the U.S. or Canada have the right to know why they’re being stopped?
My experience is that Canadians have no right to ask Americans why they are being detained, and so it is only fair that Americans have no right to ask Canadians why they are being detained. North America is a continent, not a country.

Canadians and Americans are fortunate that they live in vast countries, and so if crossing borders becomes too tedious, we can always travel within our respective countries.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 12:44 pm
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Thanks for the response.

I haven't looked into Nexus because when I asked at the border what the benefits were versus cost no one could really give me an answer. The only thing that I was told was that it would let customs know that cross the border frequently. I'll have to go out on the net to see exactly if there would be any benefit for me. I think since I've never had problems in the past crossing through the tunnel that I never gave it much thought.

I'm wondering if the fact that I usually cross at the tunnel versus the bridge was something that "flagged" me. When crossing at the tunnel I usually see several of the same customs agents and perhaps they know from my record that I cross frequently. Actually, the only times I've been stopped have been when crossing at the tunnel so I think they do pull people over even if they're familiar with the people crossing.

I'm not sure if I consider myself lucky or not that I haven't been pulled over more often. The Detroit/Windsor border has a lot of traffic going back and forth daily and I can't see them targeting people that cross on a regular basis. I do expect to get randomly pulled over every so often but it was the fact that I was marked as a "Previous Port Runner" that actually bothered me.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 1:23 pm
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Originally Posted by mre5765 View Post
My experience is that Canadians have no right to ask Americans why they are being detained, and so it is only fair that Americans have no right to ask Canadians why they are being detained. .
You might want to review Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Canada and America are booth signatories. Of course if you do bring this up you may face an even longer stay.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 1:53 pm
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Originally Posted by Polar Man View Post
You might want to review Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Canada and America are booth signatories. Of course if you do bring this up you may face an even longer stay.
The USA effectively withdrew from Article 36 in 1999. The USA officially withdrew in 2005.

Even before 1999, IME, the USA was not following Article 36.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 1:57 pm
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It’s disconcerting that people can be presumed guilty of something and then be put in the position of proving their innocence.
This is a perfect example of how wrong people are when they say "I've got nothing to hide."
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Old Mar 6, 09, 2:01 pm
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CDF, since you travel frequently, please let us know if anything strange happens.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 5:35 pm
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Originally Posted by mre5765 View Post
The USA effectively withdrew from Article 36 in 1999. The USA officially withdrew in 2005.

Even before 1999, IME, the USA was not following Article 36.
That is in relation to a court case where the defendant was not advised of his article 36 rights on detention.
The US Department of State still requires it's law enforcement to adhere to the VCCR
but as I mentioned if you bring this up at the border you may spend more time there than you might have otherwise.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 9:50 pm
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Originally Posted by CDF View Post
...I haven't looked into Nexus because when I asked at the border what the benefits were versus cost no one could really give me an answer. The only thing that I was told was that it would let customs know that cross the border frequently..
Does your usual land border have a NEXUS lane?

If it does, you would be able to use the NEXUS lane instead of waiting in line with everyone else. Also, since you are precleared in the enrollment process, it has been the experience of most user that you are subject to a less detailed review when at the border. There is a very long, on-going thread in the Air Canada fourm about Nexus. You should have a look.
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Old Mar 6, 09, 9:59 pm
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To clarify one thing: The Canada Border Services Agency does adhere to the Vienna Convention and does afford foreign nationals their rights under Article 36 upon arrest or detention. A delay for Customs or Immigration examination does not constitute a detention any more than a sobriety checkpoint or the delay faced as a police officer writes up your speeding ticket.
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Old Mar 7, 09, 7:51 am
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Originally Posted by Polar Man View Post
That is in relation to a court case where the defendant was not advised of his article 36 rights on detention.
Yes, and the defendant was executed anyway. The federal government failed to intervene into what should have been an illegal conviction. If the government is going to ignore article 36 and execute defendants, then Article 36 has no meaning.
A requirement without meaning. Read the content of the second link I provided. I will excerpt the content here:
In March 2005, the United States pulled out of the Optional Protocol to the Convention, which allows the International Court of Justice to have compulsory jurisdiction over disputes arising under the Convention. In June 2006, the United States Supreme Court ruled that foreign nationals who were not notified of their right to consular notification and access after an arrest may not use the treaty violation to suppress evidence obtained in police interrogation or belatedly raise legal challenges after trial (Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon[1]). In March 2008, the Supreme Court further ruled that the decision of the International Court of Justice directing the United States to give "review and reconsideration" to the cases of 51 Mexican convicts on death row was not a binding domestic law and therefore could not be used to overcome state procedural default rules that barred further post-conviction challenges (Medellín v. Texas [2]).
I.e., utterly meaningless.

Originally Posted by Polar Man View Post
but as I mentioned if you bring this up at the border you may spend more time there than you might have otherwise.
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Old Mar 9, 09, 8:59 am
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>>> Have I ever crossed over via Niagara Falls? ... Port Huron?
I would not remember my whole life so I could not definitively say yes or no to any question of this ilk. You probably should not have added or uttered anything about the bridge backed up as this may have given some fiendish official the idea of creating an equivalent time delay for you.

>>> only been pulled over a few times?
Yes as far as I recall. The part about I always declare should not have been added or uttered.

>>> and one time I had to pay taxes
Did you forget to declare the item prior to inspection?
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Old Mar 9, 09, 3:27 pm
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Originally Posted by doober View Post
This is a perfect example of how wrong people are when they say "I've got nothing to hide."
Maybe I'm misinterpreting this comment but I'm not sure how my post is an example of how I'm wrong when I say I have nothing hide. I actually don't have anything to hide when I cross the border and have always pulled over when requested. The issue I had was in the way that the secondary screening slip was filled out. By writing "Previous Port Runner" at the bottom of the slip that seemed to indicate to me that I was being accused of something which I have never done.

Originally Posted by AllanJ View Post
>>>
>>> and one time I had to pay taxes
Did you forget to declare the item prior to inspection?
I actually had to pay taxes because I was honest and did declare the item. This wasn't the result of an inspection rather it was written up at the customs booth. When asked if I had anything to declare I told the agent what I was bringing in and they determined I need to pay taxes so sent me over to immigration. That time it wasn't that big of a deal since I pretty much figured I'd be paying additional taxes on the item anyways.

Update: Since my trip over the bridge I've pretty much stuck to crossing via the tunnel and have had no problems in either direction. Someone pointed out to me that perhaps the one agent at the bridge may have confused me with someone who WAS flagged to be on the lookout for (i.e. same last name, make/model of car, etc.) so I'm taking the position that that's what may have happened. I understand that the customs folks have a tough job to do and don't have any complaints about the fact that I was pulled over for a secondary screening. The issues that I had (and the reason I posted in the first place) was the impression that I was being flagged for something which I have never done ("previously running a port") and for being told that they couldn't divulge to me as to why I was pulled over in the first place (even though I only asked for a definition of what was written on the screening slip). I've seen some other posts here that seem to indicate that customs/border agents don't have to give you a reason to pull you over and that in and of itself is a scary thought to me. I have no problems be told I've been "randomly" selected as I used to run into this in the airports all the time back when they had the gate screenings. If I'm being singled out for a specific reason though I at least like to know what the reason is.

I normally have no problems traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Canada and have to look on this as an occurrance that was an exception rather than the rule. For those that mentioned looking into Nexus, I'll probably take a look to see if there are any benefits to getting a Nexus pass versus the costs. If this can eliminate and misunderstandings as to the frequency of my trips than perhaps it may be worth it.
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Old Mar 9, 09, 3:42 pm
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Originally Posted by CDF View Post
Maybe I'm misinterpreting this comment but I'm not sure how my post is an example of how I'm wrong when I say I have nothing hide. I actually don't have anything to hide when I cross the border and have always pulled over when requested. The issue I had was in the way that the secondary screening slip was filled out. By writing "Previous Port Runner" at the bottom of the slip that seemed to indicate to me that I was being accused of something which I have never done.
You're right, CDF, I did not write clearly. I meant to convey is that this is an example of how, even when you have done nothing wrong or have nothing to hide, you can get screwed.
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