My post about refusing to answer questions from Customs and Border Protection officers when re-entering the U.S. has resulted in a lot of debate. My thanks to everyone who joined the conversation, including the authors of the more than one hundred posts that called me a douchebag. Let me address the major points raised, although there are multiple issues – such as the fine distinction between CBP’s immigration powers and its customs powers – that I need to truncate or elide to keep this response from becoming a law review article.
(BTW, I’m blown away by the hubbub. In the last three days, this blog has received more than 75,000 hits. The original post currently has 175 comments, while the Boing Boing report has 172 comments, the Consumerist article 312 comments, and the Reason piece 121.) (Update: The Hacker News section of ycombinator currently has 104 comments.)
1. A U.S. Citizen Cannot Be Denied Re-Entry To Her Own Country.
A federal judge in Puerto Rico – a territory sensitive to the rights and privileges of its residents' U.S. citizenship – said it best: "The only absolute and unqualified right of citizenship is to residence within the territorial boundaries of the United States; a citizen cannot be either deported or denied reentry." U.S. v. Valentine, 288 F. Supp. 957, 980 (D.P.R. 1968).
So, while some commenters worried – or advocated – that a citizen who refused to answer CBP questions would be denied re-entry to the United States, the U.S. government does not have the power to prevent a citizen’s re-entry.
2. (The Right To) Silence Is Golden.
This is principally about the right to silence. CBP officers are law enforcement (pictured), who can detain you, arrest you and testify against you in criminal court. You place yourself in jeopardy every time you speak to them about anything.
CBP officers are not your friends. CBP officers treat returning U.S. citizens as potential criminal defendants. You should likewise treat them as if they were corrupt cops on a power trip, targeting you to goose their arrest statistics. The best way to protect yourself against their depredations is to refuse to speak to them or to answer their questions.
3. Any Misstatement To A Federal Officer Can Result In Your Arrest.
If a federal officer claims you lied to him, you can be arrested and charged with the crime of making false statements. You do not have to make the statements under oath (which would be the different charge of perjury).
The only way to immunize yourself against a false statements charge is to refuse to speak to federal officers.
“Wait,” you ask, “what about telling the truth?” Doesn’t work. If, in the course of your conversation, you mis-remember something or speak inarticulately, you can now be arrested. Innocent mistake? Prove it in court after being jailed, charged, tried and paying for a lawyer.
Cardinal Richelieu is alleged to have said, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” That’s also how the false statement charge works. Any cop or prosecutor can concoct a “lie” from your statements.
The only way to protect yourself from a false statement charge is to refuse to speak to federal law enforcement officers.