… and Back Again

We got back into Toronto last night at around 9:30, from the sentencing hearing that saw our friend Peter Watts avoid jail time. The crossing back from Port Huron was happily uneventful – particularly as we passed the spot on the bridge where, in December, U.S. Customs and Border official Andrew Beaudry beat and pepper-sprayed Peter without any rational cause, then presented a spurious allegation of assault that might have seen Peter in jail for as long as six months.

As I posted all too briefly yesterday *, that didn’t happen. U.S. Circuit Court Judge James P. Adair rejected a pre-sentencing report recommending that Peter be sentenced to six months in jail – less two months, if he came up with about $2,000 in fines and fees – and set him free.

About a dozen of us came down from Toronto to listen to the sentencing and offer up our support. I think it had an impact. It had more impact, certainly, than the presence of officers Beaudry and Behrendt, who took time to attend the hearing but made tracks seconds after Judge Adair rendered his verdict.

The biggest impact, according to Peter’s lawyer Doug Mullkoff, was probably from the juror who has posted on various blogs as proudinjun. She and her husband attended the trial hearing too, and wrote to Judge Adair, explaining that no one on the jury had thought Peter deserved jail time – and that she and some others put little credit in the account of the event given by Beaudry, Behrendt and the others. We met at the trial hearing, and Doug toasted her afterwards. She took enormous grief from her fellow jurors, from her neighbours (as represented by the trolls who comment on the Port Huron paper’s website) and she didn’t flinch. You want a hero in this story – proudinjun is it.

You don’t want to underestimate Doug Mullkoff’s impact, though. I’d never seen him in action until this moment, and man. That’s a lawyer who earns his keep.

He started off tearing apart the sloppy work in the pre-sentencing report, which listed Peter as being a U.S. citizen, over-estimated his income, and downplayed the infirmity of his father by listing the 92-year-old widower’s age as “unknown.” He strung the various letters of support that Peter had received into a narrative that showed Peter to be non-violent, kind and thoughtful, milking that just as much as he could. He explained that Peter’s questioning nature meant that he would not fare well in the military, but that shouldn’t be a crime, and he characterized the incident at the border as a “goof up” that already had lasting consequences. He pointed out that the simple conviction meant that Peter would never, ever again enter the United States of America. He asked Judge Adair to exercise his prerogative, and suspend Peter’s sentence if he paid his fines in full (which he would do immediately – Peter brought with him $2,000 in crisp U.S. greenbacks).

So Judge Adair rendered his lengthy verdict. He told Peter that he was a puzzle to him; that he thought he would enjoy having a pint with Peter (Peter told him he would buy; Adair said he would get the next round); spoke at great length about the need to listen to and obey police officers. He explained he could only render a verdict after he looked a person in the eye. Then he spoke again about what folly it was to disobey police officers. He messed with our heads, Judge Adair did, for what seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes. And in the end, he agreed with Mullkoff; a suspended sentence of 60 days (less time served), if Peter paid his bills. In other words: no jail time, but a stiff fine.

We took the news pretty happily, the four of us in the car – me, Peter, his partner Caitlin and our friend Madeline**. The interview with the Canada Customs officer heading back home was giddy and incoherent; we left him smiling and shaking his head. We listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Jett, Kansas and the like as we hauled back along 400 series highways in the late afternoon sun, and laughed and grinned like everything was finally okay.

Of course, everything is not okay. Peter doesn’t go to jail. But he’s a convicted felon now – convicted of not getting on the ground fast enough when U.S. border guards demanded it. He and the rest of us went through hell while the Michigan justice system played with his life like a cat plays with a mouse. That system and the people who thrive in it persist; Peter’s life is forever diminished. 

And he did nothing wrong.

* thanks again to the Quay Street Brewing Company for letting us use their office computer and internet connection (try the Nutting Better Brown Ale – I also hear their wheat beer is very good).

** Madeline Ashby, that is. There’s a link to click through on her name. Don’t be shy. It takes you to Tor.com, where she has set down a heart-rending account of our day in Michigan, with far greater detail and emotional depth and beauty than you will find here at the Yard. It chokes me up every time I re-read it. It is, once again, right here.

14 thoughts on “… and Back Again”

  1. Thank you David Nickle for the timely and thoughtful update.
    I followed the story from the beginning, but now as it finally starts to wind down
    I am unsure about the meaning I will impose on these events. Should we categorize this as "random bad luck" and "a lesson learned about the hidden dangers the everyday"? Is it rational to condemn the US and their border patrol? The US is a big country and the BP is a huge organization; there are bound to be some problem officers who display chronically poor judgment. On the other hand, it's pretty clear what the institutional instincts were in this case: close ranks, protect your own, condemn an innocent traveler to cover up mistakes and unprofessional behaviour. It's great that there was enough give in the system and that the worst injustice was avoided. But I do wish there was some way to give the system meaningful feedback, and to make some kind of positive change. The reality is different. I will probably take the more practical route: become more wary and cynical, exercise ever greater care around cops (read fear) and border officials, and keep a lawyer's number on speed dial. This is all ancient wisdom, but I do not think that I will become a better person for having witnessed — even second hand — the operation of the machine. The only constructive step I can come up with is to become more involved in local politics. However, that will have no impact at the Michigan border, and will probably not make much difference even at home. Still caring, active citizens do make some difference. Take care Peter. I salute your courage. Thank you David Nickle. I wish we could all have a friend like you. To both: write more writing; that is light!

  2. For all the horrible associations Peter (and his friends) must have of Port Huron, the Quay Street Brewing Company looks like a great place to have a few beers.

    Raising a Hoegaarden to all of you from sunny (well, right now) Holland!

  3. David, I am not the hero of the story. I'm just a local girl that needed to do the right thing. Peter's friends… you, Madeline, Caitlin, et al are the heroes. I received emails from Peter just prior to his sentencing that were filled with anxiety and despair. I wrote to him, trying to dispel some of that anxiety, but I was not there. YOU WERE. I'm sure you got the phone calls in the night, dealt with the insecurities and disbelief. YOU rallied behind him and for him. YOU dealt with the human side of it. I just tried to put straight misconceptions about the trial. YOU put a face to the man that he is. YOU made him human to an audience that just recognized a name, a unfortunate somebody. YOU fleshed him out. Sir, it was an honor and a privilege to meet you. You and yours are the true heroes .

  4. Silly proudinjun – local girls who do the right thing ARE heroes, when their communities seem set against it.

    It was likewise an honor and a privilege to meet you, and your man. In an earlier post on this, I'd rambled on about how I resisted falling into anti-Americanism, by remembering all the good Americans I knew and loved.

    You're one of those. I cannot thank you enough for pulling my friend from the fire, when I could not.

  5. And I cannot thank you enough for being a rock for my new found friend. Let's just hope that he takes a little time to regroup and spend some quality time with those he loves. My best wishes to you, David.

  6. As a U.S. citizen I can only offer our apologies. We live here and have seen the state of our "authority figures" advance boldly from the original myth of Officer Friendly. What we have instead these days, a wry shake of the head and chuckle from other citizens who say things like "well it's not right but you should have known that would happen" as if the officer's poor behavior is to be expected.

    It isn't right, and I personally am ashamed at what we have let our country become. I can only hope this officer's fellow citizens here in the U.S. show him the respect he deserves in his off-time, as our government has clearly dropped the ball on this one.

    Frankly it looks like Canada's has too. They should have shown support for their citizen in this circumstance.

  7. Regarding Border Patrol, I've only ever had to deal with them personally once. This was on highway 8 returning to California somewhere between Yuma and El Cajon I believe. The border patrol guys there were all pretty bored, asking if I had any illegals to declare, stuff like that. This was a few years after 9/11 so I can vouch that not all BP agents are bad, or even really that suspicious (These guys actually ended up talking with me for like 5 minutes, given that it was an almost completely dead stretch of road and mentioning that there were plenty of opportunities in the Border Patrol if I was looking for a career!)

    On the other end of the spectrum I have had nothing but trouble with County Sheriffs (never seem to have time to serve you, but always seem to have time to hassle you as a suspect when they're not.), have heard of similiar issues with the local city police (from a number of sources, most recently my sister after a parole officer apparently either threatened or brandished a sidearm at my sister after having crashed her bike into the officer's car when she suddenly stopped), and have heard enough unpleasant stories about TSA agents to make me question the pleasantness of my upcoming (and first) foray out of the country, not upon my arrival in a foreign land, but during my travels upon my home soil.

    Sadly for every complaint I have against the US it seems like emigration almost anywhere else will just leave one set of compromises for another, none of them offering what I consider an acceptable society, legally, politically, morally or otherwise.

    I'm glad Peter managed to dodge the jailtime if not the charge, but quite displeased with both the felony and DNA requirement. As someone who made a similiar mistake a few years ago (during a somewhat odd traffic stop) and spent a year fighting it before having it thrown out (for the officer not being present for testimony) I have some small understanding of how unjust the justice system in this country really is, and can only hope something changes in the near future that will actually draw significant civilian action against it, because as it's stood for quite a while the majority of the population is oblivious, and the ones that aren't seem to be spending more time breaking laws and gaming the system while providing the exact sort of excuses needed to push even more layers of laws into the system, not so much fixing the holes that are already there as putting more squares onto the dartboard so that the dart will stick somewhere.

  8. As an American, I'm sad that individuals who choose to use the justice system to punish someone can still succeed in doing so even when the defendant prevails. This is true in criminal and civil cases alike–and usually the cost is financial, but clearly in this case it goes far beyond that.

    I've not seen any reports about what may happen to the officers who clearly seem to have lied about the events to justify their own actions. Are there any pending repercussions for them at all?

    All due respect to the judge, who rightly points out that one should do as law enforcement tells you to do, and the guards who do their jobs with honesty and integrity every day–but the only way justice is served is if EVERYONE is held accountable for their actions.

  9. To a point of fact: These were federal officers and a federal court, not state officers nor a state court, and so it wasn't Michigan "justice" that was at work here, but US "justice".

  10. Actually, Joe, it was a state court. The feds looked over the case in December and wanted nothing to do with it. Local Port Huron police prosecuted, it was heard in a St. Clair County Circuit Court, and the prosecutor was local, as was Judge Adair

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top