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Science Fiction author Peter Watts was found guilty of obstructing a federal border agent by a St. Clair County Michigan jury on March 19.  He could face up to two years when he is sentenced on April 26 by County Circuit Judge James Adair.  Peter Watts is a Canadian author (he lives in Toronto) who has published four science fiction books:  The Rifter trilogy Starfish, Maelstrom & Behemoth, plus the solo book Blindsight.  His trial stems from an incident in which he was stopped for a search by the border guards when he was returning to Canada.  He was tried in State of Michigan courts, even though the offense took place with federal agents.

According to Watts, what he wasn't convicted of was assaulting an officer, despite what an article in the Port Huron Times Herald said:

Toronto author Peter Watts has been found guilty of assaulting, resisting and obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

This is contradicted by what a member of the jury said:

"As a member of the jury that convicted Mr. Watts today, I have a few comments to make. The jury’s task was not to decide who we liked better. The job of the jury was to decide whether Mr. Watts "obstructed/resisted" the custom officials. Assault was not one of the charges. What it boiled down to was Mr. Watts did not follow the instructions of the customs agents. Period. He was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his non compliance. He’s not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination. The customs agents escalated the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication. Unfortunately, we were not asked to convict those agents with a crime, although, in my opinion, they did commit offenses against Mr. Watts. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so we had to follow the instructions as set forth to us by the judge."

Another juror chimes in:

" Peter, I believe your description of the trial and deliberations is more accurate than you could know. As a non-conformist and "libertarian" (who has had some experiences not unlike yours) I was not comfortable with my vote, but felt deep inside that it was consistent with the oath we took as jurors. I believe nearly all the jurors searched for a legitimate reason to vote differently. In the end it came down to the question "Was the law broken?". While I would much rather have a beer and discussion with you than Officer B. I never the less felt obligated to vote my conscience. I also believe most, if not all, the jurors sincerely hope that you are handled with a great degree of leniency, we, unfortunately have no say in that matter."

These two above quotes make me pound my head on my keyboard & gnash my teeth.  I was hoping American jurors would act like good Americans, not good Germans.  Jury nullification has a long & honorable tradition in US history.  If the law was wrong, refusing to enforce it would get the State of Michigan to fix it.  But I wasn't on the jury.  The jurors will have to live with themselves & their verdict.

Mr. Watts comments on the statute he was convicted under:

Apparently the statute under which I was convicted is somewhat controversial. I chatted with an immigration attorney while the jury was out; she expects the ACLU or some other group to sue this law out of existence before too long, since it seems pretty explicitly designed to give the cops carte blanche to charge anyone for virtually anything.

She also told me that these "exit searches" have only been going on for a few months. They started down in Arizona, as part of a bilateral agreement with Mexico to try and stem the flow of guns heading south from the US in the course of the drug wars. Of course, the problem with instituting new policies at one international border is that they tend to diffuse out to others — but in any case, assuming this information to be correct, Beaudry’s testimony that he had been doing exit searches throughout his six-year career is, shall we say, factually-impaired.

The trial:

First off, I have no complaints about my lawyer: Doug Mullkoff did a great job. He blew the guards’ testimony out of the water at every turn, highlighted the appropriate contradictions (e.g., Beaudry claims he charged in because he saw the handcuffs in Behrendt’s hand while Behrendt herself said "I never got to the point of trying to handcuff him"; Behrendt on the stand claims she told me to get away from the car while her written report to ICE makes no mention of that; numerous other inconsistencies between the testimony of the various guards, and between their spoken vs. written claims). The whole ludicrous claim that I "choked" Beaudry ended up a complete nonstarter. Even the "aggressive" and "assaultive" stance I was accused of adopting, upon cross, turned out to be me just standing there with my hands open at my sides, not making any moves whatsoever. Doug caught it all, and shone a light on it.

Nor do I have any complaints about the Prosecutor. She seems like a nice person, and while she tried her best to nail me to the wall she never went over the line (beyond a certain fondness for hyperbole, which I gather is part of the game). She did her job; she obviously did it well enough; and under other circumstances I could see myself having drinks and swapping arguments with the lady.

I have no complaints about the judge, a seventysomething Irish dude with a fondness for St Patrick’s Day who drives a blood-red ‘vette. He was polite, he kept things as light-hearted as could reasonably be expected, and (most importantly) he appeared impartial.

I don’t even have complaints about all of the border guards. Behrendt started the ball rolling and Beaudry channeled Eric Cartman to a degree I’d not have thought possible for a live-action character, but I get the sense the others just got caught up in the turbulence.

Finally, I have no complaints about the jury. The fact that it took them so bloody long to deliberate suggests to me that they took their job seriously. Based on what little I could tell during the selection process, they seemed like decent folks. And while I profoundly disagree with their verdict, I can certainly see how they arrived at it, given the constraints of the statute.

The statute itself? Now that I have complaints about.

The press has frequently characterized the charge against me as "assaulting a federal officer". The alleged (and discredited) "choking" episode has been repeated ad nauseum. Here at the Sarnia Best Western I don’t have the actual statute in front of me but it includes a lengthy grab-bag of actions, things like "assault", "resist", "impede", "threaten", "obstruct" — hell, "contradict" might be in there for all I know. And under "obstruct" is "failure to comply with a lawful order", and it’s explicitly stated that violence on the part of the perp is not necessary for a conviction. Basically, everything from asking "Why?" right up to chain-saw attack falls under the same charge. And it’s all a felony.

What constitutes "failure to comply with a lawful command" is open to interpretation. The Prosecution cited several moments within the melee which she claimed constituted "resisting", but by her own admission I wasn’t charged with any of those things. I was charged only with resisting Beaudry, the guard I’d "choked". My passenger of that day put the lie to that claim in short order, and the Prosecution wasn’t able to shake that. The Defense pointed out that I wasn’t charged with anything regarding anyone else, and the Prosecution had to concede that too. So what it came down to, ultimately, was those moments after I was repeatedly struck in the face by Beaudry (an event not in dispute, incidentally). After Beaudry had finished whaling on me in the car, and stepped outside, and ordered me out of the vehicle; after I’d complied with that, and was standing motionless beside the car, and Beaudry told me to get on the ground — I just stood there, saying "What is the problem?", just before Beaudry maced me.

And that, said the Prosecutor in her final remarks — that, right there, was failure to comply. That was enough to convict.

I do not know what the jury said amongst themselves. But a question they sent out to the court yesterday afternoon — "Is failure to comply sufficient for conviction?" — strongly suggests that this was the lynchpin event. (Certainly Defense had demolished every other, and the Prosecution had conceded as much.) If that is the case, I cannot begrudge the jury their verdict. Their job is not to rewrite laws, or ignore stupid ones; their job is to decide whether a given act violates the law as written. And when you strip away all the other bullshit — the verbal jousting, the conflicting testimony, the inconsistent reports — the law doesn’t proscribe noncompliance "unless you’re dazed and confused from being hit in the face". It simply proscribes noncompliance, period. And we all agree that in those few seconds between Beaudry’s command and the unleashing of his pepper spray, I just stood there asking what the problem was.

Whether that’s actual noncompliance or simply slow compliance is, I suspect, what the jury had to decide. That’s what they did, and while I think they made the wrong decision I’m obviously not the most impartial attendee at this party. I still maintain I did nothing wrong; but as far as I can tell the trial was fair, and I will abide by its outcome.

The motive:

Some have wondered why I’d ask what was going on in the first place, and why I would have to leave the vehicle to do that. After all, wasn’t it obvious what was going on? I answered these questions on the stand but the reportage seems a bit deficient in that area (the Times-Herald simply claimed that I felt that "the officers were required to answer my questions"), so I’ll get it out here:

There were two seriously weird things about this stop. Firstly, we were being pulled over while trying to leave the US, which in my experience was unprecedented (usually you expect to be stopped by officials from the country you’re entering). Secondly, the search began without my knowledge, without anyone asking me to "pop the trunk" so to speak. This was absolutely contrary to official protocols. Ron Smith, a spokesperson for the Port Huron detachment, confirmed this when commenting about this very case: "Of course they would have told the driver beforehand" ("Canadians Don’t Forfeit Right to Privacy at the Border", C. Clarke, pA5 of the Dec 14 ‘09 edition of The Globe and Mail). But they did not. The first I knew of it was when I turned to see guards at every door, already going through our stuff.

I turned back to ask Behrendt what was going on, but she had moved away from the car and was talking to someone else at a distance. So I got out to ask what was going on; that was when everything went pear-shaped.

The point is, this was not a routine border check. In my experience, it was extremely unusual.

For those of you who still don't know what this is about, all I can suggest is to go look through Peter Watts' blog.  Start here, go here, here,
here, here, here, here, here, here, and penultimately here.
Then here.

I hope the judge lets Mr. Watts off with the lightest tap on the wrist.

Originally posted to Friendlystranger on Sat Mar 20, 2010 at 07:16 PM PDT.

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