Peter Watts: Aftermath

23 March 2010

It seems that Squidgate has finally drawn to a close and now all that remains is to pack the pieces back into their respective slots, fold up the game board, and find out what sentence will be given to Dr. Watts. As has been repeated time and again around the Net (with varying signal/noise ratios), he was convicted of obstructing US border guards. Not attacking or making any threatening movements toward them, as the agents originally claimed. Obstructing them. The jury eventually decided in favor of the prosecution because, by the letter of the law (good luck finding it in there (thanks for the link, letscallhimray)), asking an officer why they are doing something constitutes obstruction, and is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. Think about that for a moment. Someone starts going through your car without asking your consent, you ask them "What are you doing?", and you get slapped in cuffs (roughing up optional, getting nailed with a stunner costs extra) for doing so. That's all it takes.

Dr. Watts' followup post is quite illuminating. A few of the jurors assigned to his case have come forward and it seems as if a common sentiment is that they could only reasonably act within the confines of their instructions (given to them by the judge) and the law, even though they may have disagreed with the spirit of the law. The newspaper local to the jurisdiction in which the trial was held is sticking to its guns, proven inaccuracies and all, but at this point it's all water under the bridge. As for the 'HABITUAL' flag attached to the verdict... it's safe to say that we're not going to find that out until after sentencing. Dr. Watts can't or won't discuss it but he says that he doesn't have a criminal record in Canada. I don't have the foggiest idea of how to go about probing that and I'm not sure I have time at the moment. One thing that stands out, however, is that searches of vehicles leaving the United States have been... not exactly normal, or even SOP, but apparently happen often enough that hackles are being raised. There are now signs posted where everyone can see them at the Canadian border (at least) warning of exit searches, caveat traveler.

It also says something about the quality of the surveillance systems in use at the Canadian border: they seem to still use videocassettes to store the recordings, the quality of the footage varies from grainy to pants, and the cameras are positioned such that a passing truck can obscure what's going on. Also, from what I can tell from the information available, there does not appear to be an audio track; if there is, no one has mentioned it. Somebody didn't do the math right when they worked out where to place those cams to effectively cover as much ground as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that word getting around on the Net may have acted against Dr. Watts because, people being people, overtures were probably made to Customs and Border Protection, the local jurisdiction, and many of them were probably ill-informed and incoherent if the history of similar fuckups is even halfway accurate. Ruffling official feathers in such a fashion is never, ever a good idea, possibly almost as bad an idea as not leaping when someone with a badge says "Jump!" and not asking "How high?" after the fact. That's not to say that getting the word out was entirely a bad thing - the donations that came from all corners which resulted from Cory Doctorow and Dr. Watts originally posting about this clusterfuck paid for his legal defense.

I don't mind telling you, I'm rather afraid of traveling right now. If an author from Canada can wind up getting stomped, arrested, and then convicted because he had the temerity to ask what was going on when a CBP officer violated protocol (which I suspect may be the first reaction of many people in such a situation)... well, I think the point stands, having been made by example. There is much more reason to fear the people on the border wearing badges who are ostensibly there to protect travelers than the remote possibility of a traveler up to no good. There does not seem to be any recourse other than the court system, and even then the deck's stacked against you. Between that and possibly having to turn all of my electronics over to someone following a procedure written by the lowest bidder for duplication, scrutiny, and possibly questioning, I don't want to go anywhere at all. There's no guarantee of arrival, after all.