Airlines

'I'm Not Going to Be Interrogated As a Pre-Condition of Re-Entering My Own Country'

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Reason contributor Paul Karl Lukacs describes a recent experiment in asserting his right to remain silent at the San Francisco International Airport:

"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.

While being detained, Lukacs learned that he is listed in a government database as a guy who thinks "there's some law that says you don't have to answer our questions." Ultimately, he reports, "It took half an hour and five federal officers before one of them acknowledged that I had a right not to answer their questions."

By questioning the demands of government agents, of course, Lukacs was committing the crime of "escalation," which triggers a summarily imposed penalty of hassle and delay. One Customs and Border Protection officer suggested that Lukacs should be forced to sit  for "two, three, four hours…until he cools down."