I Am Detained By The Feds For Not Answering Questions
UPDATE: The comments have raised many issues, and I address the most salient ones in a new post titled "10 Brief Responses To 700 Comments About Refusing To Answer Questions At Passport Control."
Sherman Oaks, California
I was detained last night by federal authorities at San Francisco International Airport for refusing to answer questions about why I had travelled outside the United States.
The end result is that, after waiting for about half an hour and refusing to answer further questions, I was released – because U.S. citizens who have produced proof of citizenship and a written customs declaration are not obligated to answer 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.
Her eyes widened in disbelief.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
“I’m not going to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country,” I said.
This did not go over well. She asked a series of questions, such as how long I had been in China, whether I was there on personal business or commercial business, etc. I stood silently. She said that her questions were mandated by Congress and that I should complain to Congress instead of refusing to cooperate with her.
She asked me to take one of my small bags off her counter. I complied.
She picked up the phone and told someone I “was refusing to cooperate at all.” This was incorrect. I had presented her with proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport) and had moved the bag when she asked. What I was refusing to do was answer her questions.
A male Customs and Border Protection officer appeared to escort me to “Secondary.” He tried the good cop routine, cajoling me to just answer a few questions so that I could be on my way. I repeated that I refused to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country.
“Am I free to go?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
The officer asked for state-issued ID. I gave him my California Identification Card. I probably didn’t have to, but giving him the ID was in line with my principle that I will comply with an officer’s reasonable physical requests (stand here, go there, hand over this) but I will not answer questions about my business abroad.
The officer led me into a waiting room with about thirty chairs. Six other people were waiting.
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.”
I asked to speak to his superior and was told to wait.
I read a book about Chinese celebrities for about 15 minutes.
An older, rougher officer came out and called my name. “We’ve had problems with you refusing to answer questions before,” he said. “You think there’s some law that says you don’t have to answer our questions.”
“Are you denying me re-entrance to my own country?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and walked away.
I read for about five more minutes.
An officer walked out with my passport and ID and handed them to me.
“Am I free to go?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
But we weren’t done.
I picked up my checked bag and was told to speak to a customs officer. My written declaration form had been marked with a large, cross-hatched symbol that probably meant “secondary inspection of bags.”
The officer asked if the bags were mine; I handed him my baggage receipt.
He asked if I had packed the bags myself. I said I declined to answer the question.
He asked again, and I made the same reply. Same question; same response. Again; again.
“I need you to give me an oral customs declaration,” he said.
“I gave you a written declaration,” I said.
“I need to know if you want to amend that written declaration,” he said. “I need to know if there’s anything undeclared in these bags.”
I stood silently.
Visibly frustrated, he turned to a superior, who had been watching, and said that I refused to answer his questions.
“Just inspect his bags,” the senior officer said. “He has a right to remain silent.”
Finally! It took half an hour and five federal officers before one of them acknowledged that I had a right not to answer their questions.
The junior officer inspected my bags in some detail, found nothing of interest, and told me I could leave.
* * *
1. Cops Really Don’t Like It When You Refuse To Answer Their Questions. The passport control officer was aghast when I told her that my visit to China was none of her business. This must not happen often, because several of the officers involved seemed thrown by my refusal to meekly bend to their whim.
2. They’re Keeping Records. A federal, computer-searchable file exists on my refusal to answer questions.
3. This Is About Power, Not Security. The CBP goons want U.S. citizens to answer their questions as a ritualistic bow to their power. Well, CBP has no power over me. I am a law-abiding citizen, and, as such, I am the master, and the federal cops are my servants. They would do well to remember that.
4. U.S. Citizens Have No Obligation To Answer Questions. Ultimately, the cops let me go, because there was nothing they could do. A returning U.S. citizen has an obligation to provide proof of citizenship, and the officer has legitimate reasons to investigate if she suspects the veracity of the citizenship claim. A U.S. citizen returning with goods also has an obligation to complete a written customs declaration. But that’s it. You don’t have to answer questions about where you went, why you went, who you saw, etc.
Of course, if you don’t, you get hassled.
But that’s a small price to pay to remind these thugs that their powers are limited and restricted.