I'm an (Ex) Officer - Ask Me Anything
I'm from the government. I'm here to help.
I’m an author and freelance writer now, but for 17 years I was an officer with the Canada Border Services Agency. My career started at Vancouver International Airport, before I transferred to the Peace Arch land crossing to spend the rest of my career. Despite the fact that there's actually been a reality TV show set at my work, most people still appear to know fuck all about how borders work. Here’s a few of the common questions I got asked by travelers I dealt with:
1. What do you guys look for?
Anything whose import or export is prohibited by law. Basically, anything that would get you arrested on the street, is what we’re after. The big concerns? Drugs, illicit cash, guns and other weapons, child sexual abuse material, and any evidence of terrorist activity. We also have an immigration function, so we’re looking for people seeking entry under false pretenses, criminals, people smugglers, and members of extremist groups. Since customs in every country has a revenue collection role, we’ll also be seeking to verify your declaration. That means, if you told us you didn’t buy anything, and you’ve got a diamond ring in your sock, there will be consequences.
2. Don’t you need a warrant to search me?
In the US, Canada, and most other countries, border searches can be performed under much more liberal grounds than searches inside the country. That means a warrant or your consent is not required for all but the most invasive searches, such as internal body searches. Even a disrobement (“strip search”) in Canada only requires a supervisor’s approval. Unless you are being arrested or detained for investigation, you are not entitled to speak with an attorney. Some self-appointed experts will tell you differently, but beware: if you obstruct an officer in his or her duties, you may be charged criminally.
3. Do I look suspicious?
Nobody’s touching that one with a ten-foot pole. Sometimes, an officer will be frank about the reasons for the search, as in “You declared nothing on your form, but you’ve got seven boxes on your cart.” Other times, we’ll keep quiet, because the answer may involve sensitive security information we’re not allowed to discuss. Basically, we can search you because we form a suspicion about your travel or your customs declaration; we have information about you already; or it’s a random check. Maybe you look suspicious after all!
4. Why are you asking me all these stupid questions?
To see if you have the answers. Veteran officers like to say “A lie is three questions deep.” That means that people who’ve been coached on what to say, or are just straight up bullshitting, run out of phoney answers at a certain point. That forces them to either change their story, or admit they’re lying. If you can answer the questions because you’re telling the truth, just roll your eyes and put up with it. Don’t make up a story “because it’s easier.” Trust me, it never is.
5. Why’d you guys seize my penknife?
That wasn’t us. That was the security screeners. We’re not the same. They are security guards, with very limited authority and training. We are peace officers, with six months of training, and wide-ranging search, seizure and arrest powers. We don’t give a damn about your penknife or your nail file.
6. Why are you guys all such jerks?
I dunno. I’m nice to my kids.
7. Aren’t you just searching me because I’m (insert group here)?
Yeah, sure. Officers get that one thrown in their face so often that eventually it ceases to register. Some officers do have a bone to pick with some groups, but they quickly become unpopular with other officers, because they’re always making their problem our problem. Almost all referrals are based on what’s called a “multiplicity of indicators,” articulable in court. If you think you’ve been singled out for harassment, don’t just grumble about it. Ask about the complaint process, and follow it up. It is taken seriously, believe me.
8. You guys just drink all the booze you seize and steal our stuff, right?
Everything taken from travelers is documented, and there are cameras everywhere. While I have heard of a few instances of theft, the officers involved were all fired or prosecuted criminally. I’ve never seen anyone take so much as a dime. Officers in Canada now make 80,000 dollars a year, plus overtime. To risk that for a minor theft is true stupidity.
9. Don’t you guys plant stuff on people you don’t like?
If you had any idea how much paperwork was required to seize a single joint, you wouldn’t ask that question. Officers have enough work to do without inventing more.
10. But I thought weed was legal here?
Yes, it is. But importing it isn’t. If you want to get high, why bring sand to the beach?
Hope this helps.