The Border Patrol Is Assholes. (They always be... Searchin')
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In 1999, the rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were being interviewed on television about their upcoming “Up In Smoke” concert tour. During this interview, an exchange along the following lines took place:

Dr. Dre: We’ goin’ all over, everywhere, with this tour. We goin’ to the south, the west coast, the east, the Midwest, we even takin’ it to Canada!”

Snoop Dogg (interjecting): Aww – no, man. I ain’t goin’ to no Canada!

Dr. Dre: Well uh, why’s that, Snoop?

Snoop Dogg: Because the Border Patrol… is assholes. They always be… searchin’!

At the time, I had no basis upon which to judge this proposition that, “the border patrol is [sic] assholes.” However, on my way home from Canada yesterday, I was able to unequivocally determine that at least some elements of the border patrol are, indeed, assholes.

Now, the members of the border patrol might be expected to be somewhat abrasive. After all, they are essentially cops and they do have an important job to do, which is to protect the United States from having dangerous, unwanted, and/or unlawful items and people brought into the country.

In my experience yesterday, it is definitely accurate to say that the border patrol agents with whom I had to deal with did indeed behave like “assholes.” But, despite this behavior, they did not actually even accomplish their task of making sure that I was not bringing any dangerous or illegal items into the United States!

Read on to find out how this occurred.

So yesterday, I went to Canada in order to study. The theory behind this was that I didn’t really feel like studying at the time, but I do rather like Canada, so I was hoping that the two would sort of cancel each other out. (Actually, I just went there for the fun of it, not because of this theory. But I did accomplish quite a bit of studying while I was there.) I brought my backpack containing three textbooks with me, and of course I brought the random items that currently reside in my (rather messy) car.

On my previous trips to and from Canada, I did not bring my passport (since I didn’t have one at the time), and it had never been a big problem. The Canadian border patrol has never asked for any identification; they always just say, "Welcome to Canada!" after a few basic questions. The United States border patrol has gotten a little bit irritated about my lack of a passport on my way back into the United States, but even they never seemed to care very much. I do currently have a passport, so I brought it along for this trip because I had read that you are now required to.

Getting into Canada was business as usual. However, the trip back to the United States was not. After the usual grilling at the booth (in which they always seem to ask the same questions over and over, presumably to try to catch you changing your story), instead of being waved through, I was given a little yellow slip and told to proceed to the vehicle search and inspection area, and to give my passport and the yellow slip to the officers there.

As I approached the inspection area, a border patrol officer started motioning and yelling at me about where he wanted me to position my car. After I finally get my car parked to his satisfaction, he yells at me to stay in the car. Then about five seconds later, he yells at me to step out of the car and give him the keys. After I did this, he then tells me to go "through that door" and give my passport and yellow slip to the officers at the desk. There were two doors in the area where he had gestured for me to go, so when I pointed to the door I thought he meant and asked, "This door?", he rudely yelled, "No. In there!"

So I go through the correct door and give my passport and the yellow slip to the officer at the desk, who inspects the passport and slip and tells me to have a seat in one of the chairs along the wall. I ask him if I can have my passport back, and he says, "no." I inform him that the U.S. Government instructions say never to let your passport out of your control, to which he retorted, "We are the U.S. Government." A good comeback, I guess, but generating clever comebacks is not what I view as the primary role of federal law enforcement officials, particularly while they have me under detention.

At this point, I proceeded to sit in the seat nearest to the window so that I could (in theory) see what the officers outside were doing to my car. In reality, it was very bright inside the office and very dark outside, so I couldn't actually see much of anything. While I was sitting there, the officer behind the desk went through another line of questioning that started out very similar to the questions asked by the lady at the gate but which became even more repetitive, and included the following:

Officer: So, what do you do for a living?

Me: I'm a student at the University of Michigan.

Officer: Where do you go to school?

Me: At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in the College of Engineering.

Officer: What do you study there?

Me: Computer Science/Engineering

Officer: And what school or college is that in?

Me: The College of Engineering.

Officer: And what are you majoring in?

Me: Computer Science/Engineering.

Officer: Your minor?

Me: I'm not minoring in anything.

Officer: You don't have to choose a minor?

Me: No.

Officer: So you don't have a minor?

Me: No.

Officer: And your major is Computer Science?

Me: Yes, Computer Science through the College of Engineering.

After I had sat there for about fifteen minutes, one of the officers who had been searching my car (in fact it was the rather ill-mannered officer who had previously been "helping" me park my car) came inside and (after repeating most of the questions that I had been previously asked by the first officer at the gate and the officer behind the desk) asked:

Sir, I'm going to have to ask you: What's all this electronic stuff in your trunk?

"Electronic stuff in your trunk" is not a very detailed description, but I thought that he was probably referring to the inverter that I have connected in my trunk. The inverter does have red and black wires sticking out of it, and an orange extension cord plugged into it, which run to other parts of the car, so it seemed like a reasonable thing of which to be suspicious. The inverter is connected to the car's cigarette lighter, and it converts the 12 Volt DC used by the car's electrical system to 115 Volt AC usable by household appliances. I typically use this to power a computer which I then hook up to the car's stereo so that I can listen to music stored on the computer's hard drive. Therefore, I answered:

Oh, the inverter? Yeah, that hooks up to the cigarette lighter and converts the car's power to household AC power so that you can plug a regular household appliance into it. I mostly use it to power my laptop so that I can hook it up to the car's stereo and listen to music from it when I am travelling. Sometimes, I also charge my cell phone from it.

Evidently this answer did not satisfy Mr. Border Patrol's curiosity, so he proceeded with the following line of questioning:

Border Patrol (BP): So all that is so you can listen to music?

Me: Yeah, mostly that, and also sometimes to charge my cell phone or to power devices belonging to passengers.

BP: <becoming agitated> What...? That doesn't... Why can't you just listen to a CD or the radio?

Me: <pointing to my car> Well, the car's radio antenna broke off about a year ago, so radio stations don't really come in most of the time.

BP: No, I don't mean anything to do with your cell phone. I mean why can't you just listen to the regular car radio?

Me: Uhh, because my car's regular radio antenna broke off from the car about a year ago, so the radio can hardly pick up any stations most of the time.

BP: <with increasing agitation> Well, you can still listen to CDs, can't you? Why don't you just listen to CDs?

Me: Because my car doesn't have a CD player. (I thought that after having searched my car for 15-20 minutes, they might have noticed that I didn't have a CD player, but whatever...)

BP: <extremely agitated by this point> What about cassettes???

Me: Uhh, I don't really own many cassettes.

At this point, the border patrol agent was really confused. He paused and gave a blank stare for a few seconds and continued:

BP: What exactly do you mean by, "hooking up to the car's stereo?"

Me: Well, there is an adapter in my tape player with a little cord coming off of it. I plug the cord into my laptop, and that way my laptop can play music through the car's speakers.

BP: Well that's fine, but why do you have two of them??

Me: Err, two of what?

BP: Those power things in the trunk.

Now it was my turn to be confused. I do in fact own two inverters, but I was extremely certain that my other inverter was sitting on a shelf in my bedroom at my dad's house in Kalamazoo at the time. So after I think for a moment, I say:

Me: Uhh, I didn't think that I did have two of them back there,

BP: <interrupting me>: Well, you do!

Me: Well, uhm, I mean, I do have a power strip back there, so that I can plug in multiple items if I need to...

BP: A what's that?

Me: A power strip... It plugs into the inverter and has a bunch of extra outlets on it so that I can plug in more than one thing to it, or if I have passengers in the car, they can plug their devices in at the same time as I have mine plugged in.

BP: So why do you have this?

Me: So that I can plug in more than one electrical item at a time, for instance, if I want to listen to music from my laptop and charge my cell phone at the same time.

After this, he asked a few more questions that never really went anywhere, then he disappeared into the back room for about fifteen more minutes. During this time, I overheard the following snippet of a conversation that was taking place in another back room between a female police officer and some other police officers:

Cop: Yeah, I mean, ok, if you shoot someone, that's one thing. But when you take a knife to the throat like that, that's fucking personal!

I guess that would be pretty personal, but it seemed like a pretty out-of-the-blue comment for her to make at that time. In any event, the border patrol agent who had been asking me all those questions came back, handed me my passport, and said:

BP: Uhh, ok, you can go now.

So I got up and walked out to my car. Since several of the border patrol agents with whom I had been dealing had been behaving rather obnoxiously, I thought that it might be a good idea to quickly inspect my car and its contents before I drove off so that I could make sure they hadn't damaged or taken anything. Everything looked more or less alright in the car's cabin (although they had rifled through my papers and not even bothered to put them away afterwards), so I opened the trunk to take a look around in there, at which time I immediately found out what the border patrol officer had been trying to get at, and why he seemed so confused by my answers.

I had forgotten that they were there, but it turns out that I had two large computer battery-backup units (called UPSes) in the trunk. I put them in the trunk when I moved out of my dorm room a few weeks ago, and have not yet gotten around to taking them out of the car and putting them away. (One of them has a defective controller, and the batteries in the other are rapidly approaching the end of their lifespan.) At any rate, these particular battery backup devices are made of thick metal, have circuit boards with numerous indicator lights and buttons, and last but not least, contain approximately 60 pounds worth of lead-acid electrochemical cells! [As shown below:]

I have a feeling that the presence of this equipment in my car just might have had something to do with my being detained and inspected. (I have read that they scan entire vehicles at the border now with either scatterback x-ray machines or gamma-ray scanners, which would have definitely picked up the UPSes.) I also imagine that when the border patrol guy went to pick the UPSes up to look at them, he probably also thought it was kind of odd that they weigh approximately 40 pounds each. How was he supposed to know that they were just batteries in an innocent electronic device as opposed to explosives or weaponizable chemicals or something? After all, to the x-ray or gamma scanner, they are large, dense chemical cells with thick wires coming off of them, connecting to some heavy electronics and several circuit boards.

So the Border Patrol agents that were dealing with me were not exactly polite. In fact, for the one guy, you could even go so far as to support Snoop Dogg's proposition that (at least in his case) the Border Patrol is [sic] "assholes". But, even this behavior did not enable them to find out what these mysterious devices in my car were! I mean, they just got confused, came back, and said, "OK, you can go." They never found out what the UPSes were. Furthermore, from their point of view, I had essentially been lying to them the entire time, because while they were asking me questions about one thing (the UPSes), I was inadvertantly giving them answers about something else entirely (the Inverter)! Even if they didn't think the UPSes were harmful devices, and even though I was not trying to mislead them, it seems like that would be the kind of thing that they would want to clear up before letting someone into the country, particularly when they already suspect that individual enough to require a search of his car!

In retrospect, I can't say that there is any really great or profound lesson to be learned here. But I think that it at least goes to show that the oft-repeated excuse for rude behavior by law-enforcement personnel: "Oh, they have an important job to do, and they were just trying to get it done," is most certainly not always valid.