Episode 19: Breaking the Law
POSTED: August 1st, 2012
LOCATION: Gulf Shores, Alabama
LOG DATE: March 27th, 2012
They were a hundred yards off my port bow heading in the opposite direction when I spotted them, creeping along like they always do before circling in for the kill. I knew they were watching me. I looked ahead, tried to act cool and hoped they would leave me alone. We passed each other and it looked like I was in the clear but before I could breathe a sigh of relief they turned and came up behind me. Then after a very tense moment of anticipation, their blue and red lights started flashing. “Ugh, here we go again,” I said as they pulled up to board me.
“Good morning,” I said as the first officer climbed aboard. “You guys the Florida State Police?” “No,” he replied, “the Alabama Marine Police (AMP).” Then with a smirk on his face he said “Welcome to Alabama.” Funny. When I woke up that morning I was anchored off a white sandy beach near Pensacola Florida. I was headed for Dog River, Alabama that day, a hole in the wall place on the northwest corner of Mobile Bay. They don’t put up signs on the water telling you that you’ve crossed a state line but I couldn’t have been more than a mile across the border when the police boat picked me up. I think they were hanging out in the area waiting for boats to either cross the state line on the inland waterways or come in through the nearby inlet from the Gulf of Mexico. I later learned they were conducting a special operation that day so they were looking for someone out of the ordinary and I fit the bill perfectly.
The second of the two officers was with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was a young guy, mid-twenties and apparently new to the job as he was discernibly nervous. He did most of the talking while the more experienced AMP officer confidently stood by and helped the process along. We went through the usual questions; was anyone else on board, did I have any weapons and could they see my registration and identification? Then they wanted to know where I had come from and where I was going. I didn’t see what that had to do with anything or why it was any of their business but it wasn’t worth arguing about.
The ICE agent asked me if I had recently been to any foreign countries. I suppose the definition of the word ‘recently’ is subjective and I could have in good conscience left out the fact that I had been in the Bahamas three months prior but in my ignorance that didn’t occur to me. “Yeah, I was in the Bahamas in January,” I replied. He looked up from his clipboard and with wide eyes said “really?” This got him excited. Now he wanted a detailed account of my trip to the Bahamas; dates, ports of call and what I was doing there in the first place. I gave him everything he wanted while he dutifully filled out his paperwork. Neither of the officers seemed particularly suspicious of me. It was more like they just wanted to fill in the blanks on their forms. Eventually they ran out of questions, went back to their boat while I wrongfully assumed the matter was over.
Alone again I started to muse about the philosophical implications of law enforcement agencies being allowed to stop and question you whenever they please. It’s not fun but perhaps it’s just another sacrifice we must make to be citizens of the United States. But is there a limit to how far it should go? I didn’t get too far in this monologue because I glanced behind me and noticed that the same gray and blue police boat was trailing me a quarter mile back. “Maybe they were just heading in the same direction while they figured out what to do next,” I considered. Twenty minutes later they were still following me. “What could they possibly want,” I thought. “They didn’t even seem suspicious.” I tried to go on with my business but it’s hard when you’ve got somebody looking over your shoulder. I thought about throwing something harmless in the water like an apple to get them to think I was ditching drugs or a weapon. Fortunately, wisdom got the best of me on that one and I declined the idea. A few minutes later they turned their engines up and zoomed off down some side creek. I relaxed again thinking the incident was finally over.
No sooner had they gone than a blue and white helicopter appeared overhead. He slowly followed the river I was on, passed by me and went until he was out of sight. “Hmm, could have been a news helicopter,” I said to myself. A few minutes later he re-appeared coming back from the way he came. “Maybe a coincidence,” I thought. Then he reappeared a third time doing the exact same thing. I hate to be a conspiracy theorist but I had strong feeling that it was a police helicopter asked to watch me. “What could they possibly think I’m up to,” I said aloud. Then as if to confirm my suspicion, a minute after the helicopter disappeared my old friends in the police boat re-appeared behind me. “This is ridiculous!” I said. They followed me for another half hour and finally pulled up beside side me so we could move on to the next phase of the saga.
“We’d like to ask you some more questions,” the AMP officer said from the bow of the police boat. “Great, come on over,” I replied in forced politeness. Once aboard they began with a somewhat disconcerting statement. “So we talked to our boss and figured out what questions to ask.” Law enforcement everywhere dropped a notch down in my mind after that. Apparently I was some rogue case who didn’t fit the procedure in their interrogation manual. “Then,” the AMP officer continued as if stating the agenda of a meeting, “we’re going to have you pull over so we can search your vessel and have it sniffed by dogs.” “Wow,” I thought, “they think I’m a drug smuggler.” I wasn’t sure how to take it. It was a bit of a surprise because I’ve never had any real trouble with the law. Once while a friend and I were looking for a fried chicken place in a rough section of New York City, we got pulled over under the suspicion of soliciting for prostitutes. Then another time I got stopped on i-95 for driving too slow. That about sums up my criminal background.
So the whole drug runner thing was a bit of a shock. The ICE agent proceeded to place a clipboard and a form in front of me. It was a waiver offering my consent to search the boat. I asked what would happen if I refused and they said nothing would happen and I had the right to do so. It seemed a little ridiculous to me to search a boat after someone has consented to it. If I had anything I would have simply refused. Since I didn’t have anything and thought it might be an interesting experience, I agreed.
Immediately after signing their form a moment I had been long waiting for finally came. The first question every government agent asks you when you when they board your boat is, “Do you have any weapons aboard?” I always answer no because I have no weapons. But secretly I have long wanted to answer yes to the question. Well a few weeks prior I had a friend with me who had brought two guns aboard. Everything was legal so I hoped that we would get pulled over so I could finally answer yes to the question. Unfortunately we didn’t and I figured I missed my big chance. Well the ICE agent then spoke up and asked if before the boat was searched did I want to admit to having any drugs or firearms aboard. “Here is my big chance,” I thought. “Well actually.” I spoke up “a few weeks ago I had a friend aboard who had two guns with him.” I got my momentary satisfaction from this and it got the ICE agent much more excited. He started scribbling furiously on his clipboard; what kind of guns were they, what was the owner’s name? He even wanted my friend’s social security number and birth date. I answered some of the questions but politely declined a few as I didn’t see how getting my law abiding friend’s information put into some government database was contributing to public safety.
They then asked me for a detailed account of where I was going. I didn’t really know but I gave them something to make them feel good about themselves. Since I was on a roll with the firearms questions I threw out the fact that I was going to go to Mexico after my U.S. travels. This really got the ICE agent into a flurry. Compared to the local fishermen they are used to pulling over I must have been prime rib. Where in Mexico was I going? What business did I have there? How was I going to pay for the trip? At that point I admitted that my Mexico plans were so amorphous that I didn’t really have any details.
Eventually we came to a dilapidated cinder block building with a disintegrating wooden dock attached to it. It looked like it might have been an old restaurant that lost its roof and had been long since abandoned. Next door somebody had tried to build a make shift boat launch ramp out of concrete but it was crumbling into the waterway. An abandoned car sat in the thicket of surrounding trees. They said it would be a few minutes before the dogs arrived so I took a seat in one of the random pieces of lawn furniture that were scattered about the area. It was a beautiful day. The sun was beaming down through the oak trees that lined the canal. A gently breeze was creating small ripples on the water and a metal grinder could be heard coming from a rusty sheet metal garage on the other side of a nearby field. I put on my sunglasses, sat back and enjoyed the moment.
When the dogs arrived it wasn’t AMP or ICE but the Gulf Shores Patrol, yet another agency to add to my growing list. They passed by me without any acknowledgment and brought the dogs aboard Atlas to begin the search. I heard them moving stuff around, opening and closing this and that. Ten minutes passed with no word. Then the ICE agent came out. He had found something. In his right hand was a sealed FEDEX package that I had hidden behind a book shelf. He held it above his head and said, “What do we have here?” I smiled and replied, “Oh that, it’s my tax documents.” He opened it to find I was telling the truth. I had my parents send down my pile of W-2s and 1099’s for the coming tax deadline. “Sorry bucko, no kilo of cocaine there,” I happily thought to myself. Eventually they concluded their search and with nothing else to do they released me from my detention. As I cast off the dock I sarcastically said to the AMP officer, “See you again in a few hours?” With a stern look on his face he replied, “Not by us.” I assumed that meant it was the end of the affair but when I had yet another law enforcement encounter a few days later I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were connected.
On the long trip across Mobile Bay I thought about the events of the day. There was plenty to complain about; the inconvenience of being detained and questioned, the invasion of privacy in being searched and the agents determination to fill in the paperwork blanks versus using their heads in the matter were just a few on my list. The ordeal made me wonder if as a country we are going too far with what we call security. The TSA, NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program and Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration legislation are all inconveniences to our lives and invasions of our privacy. Are they worth it? Are they the proper responses to the associated threat? I didn’t find the answers that day and I still haven’t found them all. However, I did end up finding some peace on the matter. Some words of the Apostle Paul came to me. He said, “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.“ Simple but effective advice. It doesn’t solve the problem of those who abuse authority but in my years of following those words that has somehow never been a problem. So as I neared the end of my trip across the bay I took my solace from the days trials in this. As many problems as the United States has, generally speaking, it still protects and rewards law-abiding citizens. And that’s something to be thankful for.