A U.S. Customs Trap

Sunday, March 17, around 1:00 pm, my brother and I drove into New Brunswick, Canada from Mars Hill, Maine. We returned a few minutes later by a different route a few miles to the south. We stopped for a little while at the American side of the border crossing, but nobody was there so we went on. We had nothing to declare and we are both American citizens, so we didn't think too much about it.

About 25 or 30 minutes later we were stopped on I95 by the U.S. Border Patrol and were taken to the U.S. Customs office in Houlton, Maine. I was told that there was a sign in Monticello saying that we had to go to Houlton. The Monticello crossing is 18 or 20 miles from the Customs office in Houlton. You have to travel on three different highways to get from one to the other. Apparently we missed that road sign.

We were told that we were under arrest. We were not told of any charges against us. After more than an hour of questions and waiting, I was finally told that I had to pay $500 or my brother's vehicle and all its contents would be seized by the government. I was told that this was a good deal, because the normal fine is $6000.

It didn't seem such a good deal to me. All I did was miss a road sign. We had no contraband. We had no goods to declare. We are both natural-born U.S. citizens. But here was a person, Mr. Dennis Grenier, who had the authority to be judge and jury and fine me nothing, $500, $6000, or seize $30,000 worth of car and contents. It all depended upon his whim and mood at the time. It's disgusting for the United States government to be running a racket like this. You might expect this type of thing in a third-world country, but certainly not in the United States.

I am sure you think this story sounds a little far-fetched, but it's not. A more complete version of the afternoon's events is given below. It is factual, without embellishment. I am willing to swear and testify to its accuracy.

There are several things that are very wrong with this situation.

1. I had no chance to plead guilty or not guilty. My only choice was to pay $500 or have my brother's car, our clothes, our skis, our climbing gear, and our computers seized by the government.

2. It is ridiculous to be fined $500, let alone $6000, for missing a road sign.

3. It is ridiculous for a road sign to instruct you to drive 18-20 miles to another town.

4. If I am arrested and charged and fined $500, shouldn't I be able to have a trial by jury? I have not pled guilty to anything, but Mr. Grenier took $500 of mine.

5. If I missed the sign, there have to be others who miss the sign too. Mr. Grenier agreed that there were. I asked him how many people missed the sign, and how many of those were fined $500. He refused to say or even estimate. He did say that I wasn't the first and I wouldn't be the last. It's an on-going trap.

6. It would be much more efficient to man the border crossing than to chase down people who don't see the sign instructing them to drive to another town. Why does U.S. Customs entrap people like this? Just to raise money? Why isn't a gate closed when the border is not manned? That way people would have to drive to another border crossing and there would be no room for error. Is it because it wouldn't raise any money for U.S. Customs?

7. The seizure laws were enacted to help the police catch drug dealers and other criminals. I have read that these laws are being abused, but I never really believed it until now. Now, the U.S. Customs Service is using the seizure laws to extort money from tourists. It happened to me.

8. I happened to have $500 with me on this trip. Many if not most people do not carry that much cash. Do they lose their cars and possessions for missing a road sign? Or was I fined because I had the money to pay? Is the United States becoming like third-world countries where fines are levied according to how much money is in your wallet?


The detailed story:

I flew to Boston on Friday, March 15, and met my brother who was attending some management courses at Harvard University. We drove to Mount Washington in New Hampshire that night, and climbed it the next day. It was cold and windy on top. It was 2.1 degrees and the wind was around 70 mph.

That afternoon after climbing the mountain, we decided to drive to Maine and try to climb Baxter Peak on Sunday, March 17. There was too much snow to drive close to the mountain without a snowmobile. We drove around the mountain, and came down the highway to Mars Hill. We decided that we would go to New Brunswick, since neither of us had ever been there. We thought we might see the longest covered bridge in the world.

The Canadian border guard was very helpful and friendly. He gave us directions to the longest covered bridge in the world, which we botched. The New Brunswick countryside does look a lot like rural Oklahoma, except for the snow. By that time it was snowing pretty hard, and the road we were on was pretty rough. We came to a sign that said some town's name (I forgot what) followed by "ME." It pointed West. I decided to head on back because of the weather, and because I was planning to fly back to Oklahoma that night. I took the road and shortly came to the border.

There was a Canadian border guard, but he was on the other side of the road. On the U.S. side there was nobody. I waited for a little bit to make sure nobody was inside the building, and then I drove on. At first I was a little griped because our border station wasn't manned and the Canadian station was, but then I thought it was kind of nice to be able to drive from Canada to the U.S. without a lot of hassle. I figured it made better neighbors, at least in that area. Either way, we had nothing to declare so it didn't make any difference whether there was a border guard or not.

I didn't realize that there apparently was a border guard, but he was hidden so they could stick us for $500. I also didn't notice any road signs telling us to drive to another border crossing.

The next 25 or 30 minutes was pretty uneventful. I drove to highway 1, then to interstate 95 and headed toward Boston. Shortly after getting on I95, I was stopped by a 4wd vehicle with flashing lights. I didn't think I was speeding, although I did pass a semi shortly before getting on the interstate. I was pretty surprised when I found out it was the border patrol. I though they would be pretty embarrassed when they learned that we were Americans, their border station was empty, and that we had nothing to declare.

It turned out that they didn't care what we had to declare. They didn't care what nationality we were. They did care that their border station was unmanned, because we were supposed to find another one to go to – the one in Houlton. It turned out that we were only a couple of miles from there at one point. We would have been glad to go there if we had known we were supposed to.

The border patrol officer took both our driver's licences and told us to follow him. He took us to the Customs office in Houlton. We were told to go inside with him. He was criticizing us because we didn't see the sign. I think he didn't believe us. He thought everybody knew you couldn't drive from one country to another without going through customs. I thought NAFTA meant there wasn't any customs in North America except for certain items, but he explained that NAFTA has nothing to do with people. It's only for commerce.

There was a border patrol officer and a customs inspector at that point. They never gave us their names. (I later asked for their names, but Denis Grenier refused to give them to me.) They were discussing what to do with us. They called Canadian customs and verified that we had crossed the border a few minutes earlier. One of them asked the other what he wanted to do. The other replied, "Whatever you want to do. I'll back you either way." This sounded pretty questionable to me, like they were planning to lie to make a case against us.

We were asked a lot of questions. Who was driving when we crossed the border? (I was.) Where did we cross the border? (We both didn't know.) Where were we born? (Oklahoma.) What do we do for a living? (Computer Software.) When did we leave Oklahoma? (2 and 9 days before) Hadn't we ever been to Canada before? (I hadn't driven to Canada before this, but I don't think they believed me.) One question that summed up their attitude was, "What are you guys doing up here, anyway?" It was like a couple of guys from Oklahoma had no business invading Maine, and we were going to pay for it. We answered all their questions truthfully and completely.

Shortly after we got there, we went to the restroom. The customs inspector came into the restroom and told us that we were under arrest and that we had to "sit in those chairs." He never did say what the charges were. I may not have admitted to driving across the border if I had known we were under arrest. I thought they just wanted us to fill out customs declarations or something.

They also searched the car. They didn't find anything, of course, but I was a little worried they might plant something just to bolster their case. That was the attitude they seemed to have.

I think we were in their office a little more than an hour. It may have been more. Most of the time was spent waiting. My brother, who had taken his shoes off in the car, spent all this time barefoot. I suppose if they had seized his car and its contents, they would have kicked him out into the snow with no shoes.

We were told that we could be released with no fine, or we could be fined 5,000 or 6,000 dollars, or that our car may even be seized. They said we'd have to wait on the supervisor, that it was up to him.

Eventually they told me I had to pay $500. If I didn't pay they would seize my brother's car and all its contents. I said I wanted to contest it. I assumed I would be able to plead not guilty. I was willing (and am willing) to fly back to Maine to fight it.

Instead, I was led to Denis Grenier's office. He was the supervisor in charge at the time. When I told him I wanted to contest the $500 fine, he told me that if I did it might go back up to the full $6000. I said that was OK. This was unjust, and I was (and am) willing to risk $6000 to change it.

At first he told me I would need to fill out a form and mail it somewhere. Later he changed and said I needed to fill out the form to get the $6000 fine mitigated to $500. Still later, he changed and said he could do it verbally and I didn't have to fill out the form. He said the only way to contest it was to write a letter to the fines and penalties office.

This didn't sound much like pleading not-guilty or appealing to me. It sounded more like a colleague who would get the letter and automatically rubber stamp "denied" on it.

When I was talking to Mr. Grenier, I asked him how many people missed the instructions on the sign that said to come to his office. He wouldn't say. I asked him if all those people were fined $500. I knew they couldn't be, because most people don't carry $500 with them. He implied that the only people who weren't fined were the ones who stopped for gas or food on the way there. I think he was stretching it a bit.

More than once during our conversation, Mr. Grenier said that there was no way that I could have been at that crossing without knowing about it beforehand. I explained how I got there, but he would not believe that we just happened across the border where we did.

After I paid the $500 to Denis Grenier, they searched the car again. Different people did the searching this time. One of them said the car was a mess. Finally, they let us go. I missed my plane and had to spend an extra night away from home.

The one thing that bothers me about this more than anything else is Mr. Grenier's remark that I was not the first person for this to happen to, and I won't be the last.


Robert Webster