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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The case of the Canadian at the border

Back in December of 2009 I was alerted to a new post by Science Fiction / Fantasy copyeditor Deanna Hoak on her blog:

Legal fundraiser for Dr. Peter Watts, SF writer Deanna Hoak

Now, I had never heard of Peter Watts prior to this incident. As a matter of fact, I have never (as far as I know) read anything by him, before or since. But that made no difference. From what I was reading, it sounded like a profound injustice had been done, and that got my blood boiling. I wrote this post that same day:

Another Monkey: Canadian Science Fiction writer Peter Watts assaulted and detained by U.S. border agents

Here's the opening of this post:
When I met Chelsea Clinton in Scranton last year I had a few seconds to talk to her. Nothing much. Not that I was being rushed at all, and in fact I could have hung out with Chelsea at a nearby bar/restaurant afterwards, but I didn't want to delay the nice lady who took my picture and her daughter from getting to talk to Chelsea. So I think all I said to her after the picture was taken was something like, "I have a lot of friends who are afraid to travel to America. I hope your mom helps change that." I wasn't just thinking about our culture of violence. I was also thinking of the ever-more-draconian steps that are being taken to discourage any visitors from coming to this country, all in the name of National Security.

When Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee I threw my support behind him. I figured that either Democratic candidate would be more likely to reverse the Bush Administration's many miserably bad decisions than the McCain/Palin team.

On a lot of these, I'm still waiting.
I haven't followed the case that closely since then, maybe popping in on Dr. Watts's (NSFW - language) blog to read his newscrawl from time to time. But this week's news out of Arizona, along with the careful parsing by supporters to try to make it sound like the law could mean something other than racial profiling of Hispanics (or suspected Hispanics), led me to wonder how many pigment-deficient folks might be hauled in on suspicion of being illegal Canadians. This led me to wonder what was going on with that Canadian writer dude who was arrested at the border that I had read (and written) about months earlier. I sought out his blog and read this, posted Monday night:
No Moods, Ads or Cutesy F***ing Icons (Re-reloaded) »

I. Am.

Coming home.
More tomorrow.
So. I had come in at a crucial point - the climax, or just past the climax, or actually just past the second climax. A quick read of the preceding post indicated that Dr. Watts had, in fact, been found guilty - not of repeatedly assaulting a border patrol agent's fist with his face, as I initially surmised, but of "obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer", a felony that could result in up to two years of jail time, and everything that goes with that (including loss of income, permanent felony conviction record, and a charge of $60/day for the privilege of being incarcerated.)

So.

He had been found guilty. He was now a convicted felon in the eyes of the United States. The recommendation for sentencing was the maximum allowed - “6 months incarceration, with 60 days suspended upon payment of court assessments in full.” And he was going home to Canada. So what gives?

What gives was that his case was presided over by, and his sentencing was handed down by, a judge who was sympathetic to his situation. After a bit of speechifying on the part of the judge, during which time Peter Watts was completely uncertain as to whether he was about to be taken out in shackles or taken out for a drink, the judge handed down his verdict: suspended sentence, plus a $500 fine and court costs. For what, as Peter Watts describes it in his post-homecoming post, was "an offence that even the Prosecution admits amounts to not-getting-on-the-ground-fast-enough."

He's a free man. Well, conditionally free. And a convicted felon, with all that goes along with that. And what does go along with that? I don't know. Prohibition from entry into the United States? That will make any air travel plans that much more difficult. And if that is the case, I guess he will have to pray that no future flights that he takes are diverted into U.S. territory, or he may be facing some jail time.

There is a video of this incident. It exists, and it was presented in court - over the objections of the prosecution, who wanted to introduce an edited modified version for whatever reason. I've never seen it. It was being kept out of the public sphere as it was evidence in an ongoing case. It would be interesting to see, and more interesting to hear - although, reportedly, no audio exists.

It is easy to see this as a case of police engaging in a bit of thuggish fun against a totally helpless and innocent Canadian writer. He maintains that he exited his vehicle - stopped at the Port Huron exit point while returning to Canada after helping some U.S. friends move - when he noticed that an unannounced search was being conducted on it, in order to ask why an unannounced search was being conducted on it. Consequently, rather than being given an explanation, he was ordered back into the vehicle and/or onto the ground. His failure to comply with these orders resulted in him being pepper-sprayed, assaulted, arrested, charged, and subsequently convicted as a felon.

Was there more to this? Was Watts belligerent, bellicose, engaging in actions that made the border patrol agents feel that a violent response was necessary? I have no idea. Witnesses say no, definitely not.

Americans have learned in the days following September 11, 2001 to bow down and meekly obey any orders given to us by uniformed folks at airports or at the borders, lest we find ourselves on the receiving end of the sort of treatment Peter Watts received. We know that there is no crime more likely to bring about summary justice than contempt of cop. Apparently that message did not reach our cousins to the North.

But we also know that, mixed in with all the good and noble individuals who put their lives on the lines every day to enforce the law and serve and protect the people, there are more than a few who are schoolyard bullies with badges and guns. Everybody knows of examples, or knows people who experienced these situations first hand. Recently a University of Maryland student was charged with assaulting a police officer (and his horse) during celebrations following Maryland's defeat of Duke University. But video of the incident* clearly showed that the student did nothing that was described in the incident report, and was in fact the victim of an unprovoked and brutal assault by several armed and armored police officers.

And criminal abuse of power is not restricted to police: in Northeastern Pennsylvania, we are still reeling from the aftereffects of the actions of two Luzerne County judges who set up a racket convicting juvenile offenders and sentencing them to incarceration at a privately-run facility which was providing them with kickbacks, the famous "Kids for Cash" scandal. Unknown numbers of kids who committed relatively minor infractions were railroaded into this system, denied even the opportunity to be defended; in the aftermath, all of the juvenile convictions of Judges Conahan and Ciaverella were tossed out as incorrectibly tainted, and any unpaid fines and restitution were dismissed - re-victimizing those legitimate victims of actual juvenile offenders, and setting more serious offenders free along with the rest.

Not every cop is a thug, or every judge corrupt. Any more than every Catholic priest is a pedophile, or every Tea Partier a delusional racist "birther."

Peter Watts is a free man.

But Peter Watts is also a convicted felon.


See also:

Madeline Ashby: Tor.com / Science fiction and fantasy / Blog posts / Sometimes, we win.

From David Nickle's The Devil's Exercise Yard:
Off to Port Huron tomorrow
Peter Watts is free
... and Back Again



*In Pennsylvania, it is illegal to make any video recording of a police officer in the course of his duties. So if this had happened in Pennsylvania, the video would have probably been inadmissable as evidence, and the person who made it could have been arrested.

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