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Coming From Akwesasne? Get Out of the Car

A column by Dave Staddon about being pulled over by Border Patrol.
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I work for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe as public information director. My reservation is in Canada and my legal residence is within the jurisdiction of the Saginaw-Chippewa Reservation in Michigan.

Akwesasne is Mohawk territory and the U.S.-Canada border runs through it. Because it is an active border with six jurisdictions, (provincial, state, federal and county and Tribal) there are always some policing agencies in the area. Since 9/11 the number of agencies (10 at last count) enforcing all brands of law became increasingly visible. So, being pulled over at least once in my career at Akwesasne would seem inevitable.

Last December, while on my way from work for an eye appointment, I noticed a U.S. Border Patrol van following me closely. Clearly I was being observed. When I turned off he turned on his lights and pulled me over.

The officer approached my car and I rolled down the window. He asked, “Where are you going?” I replied, “To an eye appointment.” He asked, “Where do you work?” I told him about my role with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. He said that he worked closely with the tribal police and I told him that I knew the tribal police chief, one of the detectives and that a friend of mine had recently retired from Border Patrol, but name-dropping didn’t help.

He asked for my identification. He then asked, “Have you ever been stopped before?” I told him, “No.” He then asked, “You mean you’ve never been stopped?” I said, “No. I’ve never been stopped.” He asked, “Do you have anything against you?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. He had a heavy accent and was difficult to understand. He asked again, “Do you have anything against you?” I guessed that he meant any pending criminal charges or warrants. I told him I did not.

He then asked for permission to search my car. I asked, “What for?” No answer. I asked him, “What is your probable cause to search?” Still no answer. I said, “I don’t think a search is reasonable.” He said, “You have a right to say, ‘No.’” I replied, “OK. I’m saying ‘No.’ You have no reason to search my car.” He said, “But you were coming from Akwesasne.” I replied, “I do that every day. That’s where I work.” He said, “You say ‘No.’ That makes me suspicious.” I said, “Fine. Be suspicious all you want.”

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He took my identification back to his vehicle, then returned. I gave him my business card. “I ask you again, have you ever been stopped?” “No,” I replied. “Are you sure?” he asked. I said that I had been stopped for speeding a while back, but I thought he was asking about border patrol. “Now that is what I’m getting at!” he declared and smiled like I admitted to selling state secrets. I simply didn’t understand the question’s context. “When was that?” I wasn’t sure, “I think it was two years ago in September,” I answered. He then asked me, “What happened in 1973?” What!? 1973?! “Uh….. the war in Vietnam ended?” Then the light bulb came on, “I got arrested for possession of marijuana, but the charges were dropped.” “So you do have something against you!” he exclaimed. I said, “Hey, that was 38 years ago and the charges were dropped.” He then asked again to search my car. I refused. He looked annoyed and said he would call out a canine unit. I said, “Fine! Knock yourself out! You’re the one standing out there in the freezing cold rain, not me.” He looked more annoyed and said, “It will take at least 45 minutes for the dog to get here because we don’t have a dog in our sector.” Baloney. The K-9 unit arrived in about seven minutes.

After a lengthy conversation between the two officers, the K-9 handler approached my car. “Does he still have your ID?” he asked. “Nope, I have it. Would you like to see it?” “Yes,” he answered. He also asked me if I had ever been stopped by the border patrol. I told him, “No.” He said, “But you have a Michigan license.” I replied, “Yes, I do. That’s my legal residence. I’m a registered voter there and my passport is registered there. I file my taxes there and file a tax return in New York as an out-of-state worker. Lots of people work in New York, but have their legal residences outside of New York. Nothing illegal about that.” He then stated, “But you won’t give us permission to search.” I said, “I’m a U.S. citizen and am protected by the Constitution against unreasonable search. You guys have no real reason to search my car and no probable cause.” He then told me he was going to run the dog around my car and I would have to stand outside while he did that.

I got out and locked my doors. The first officer asked me if I wanted sit in his vehicle. “No thanks.” It is a lot easier to get into a police vehicle than to get out of one. So I stood outside. He ran the dog around my car with no results. He looked a little puzzled and ran the dog again. No results again. He walked the dog back to his truck and told me that I was free to go.

I was surprised how bold and suspicious the officers are in their attempt to police an area that is already over-policed. Now I know what the Mohawks and other residents of this area have to go through.

The important thing is to know your rights. You have to give permission to a search or they have to have a search warrant. If you lock your car doors when exiting your vehicle, the officers cannot simply open your doors without your permission or a search warrant. Be polite but firm. If you are Indian and your territory is on a border, be careful for what you wish for in terms of law enforcement funding and presence. The U.S. is eager to establish their forces on our borders and within our territories.

Dave Staddon is the public information director for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.