How do I educate a customs officer on the meaning of a word?
September 25, 2014 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Insanebureaucracyfilter:I'm applying for global entry. A decade ago, I got falsely arrested by a corrupt and quota-happy New Orleans cop for possession of weed. The prosecutor refused the charges because, you know, no evidence, totally innocent, all that jazz. The customs officer wants me to prove I was never convicted, but doesn't understand what the word "refused" means... and I AM a lawyer, for pete's sake!

Get this. I've sent a certified copy of the court docket to the customs officer deciding my global entry application. The docket indicates that the charges were refused.

The customs officer insists that I still have not proven that I was never convicted. He says it's not good enough, because, get this, he admittedly doesn't understand what the notation "refused" on the record means. I've explained it, but apparently my explanation doesn't satisfy. Seriously. You can't make this shit up. He demands I send some document within two weeks explaining what "refused" means.

Here are some strategies I've considered, and the reasons they probably won't work:

- Getting the clerk of court or the D.A. to write him a letter explaining what "refused" means. Problem: the New Orleans bureaucracy is incredibly inefficient and unfriendly, right now the clerk's office is half shut-down because of bickering with the mayor, the DA is not known to be any more helpful. Even to get a certified copy of the record I had to get a friend to call in favors, and that's a regular service they offer. An explanatory letter is probably impossible.

- Hiring some lawyer to write an official opinion explaining what "refused" means. Problem: the customs guy is unlikely to accept this. Why? Because he didn't accept my explanation, and I'm a law professor, for god's sake.

- Finding some official code section that defines "refused." Problem: the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure does not appear to define the term. It uses the word "dismissed" in the one relevant section.

- Getting someone else relatively impressive to write the customs guy a letter explaining what the word means, like a judge from another jurisdiction. Problem: that would require a HUGE favor from said impressive person, even if it could happen. I'd really rather not be the guy who asks, e.g., a state supreme court judge to teach a customs officer what the word "refused" means. And who knows if customs guy would buy it.

So I'm out of ideas. Gearing up to fight a lengthy appeal just on point of principle/bloody-mindedness, but first thought I'd turn to the internet to see if anyone had anything creative. So, mefites?
posted by paultopia to Law & Government (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Have you backed yourself into a place where you need to explain what refused means, or can you still go the "never convicted" route? If showing that you were never convicted is good enough, can you get some sort of background check or other official document with a section that says "list of all convictions" (or such) and that section is blank? Or some sort of official "Paultopia has never been convicted of a criminal offense" certification?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:30 AM on September 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ask a colleague at your law school? They would probably be impressed by anyone but you, even though it makes little sense, because it will "feel" more official. Plus if you jump through a hoop they'll feel like you're being appropriately submissive/respectful. If they just let you explain and then change their mind, they will feel like they are bad at their job.

Also, if you were incredulous or snotty on the phone--understandably so--consider how you can undo that so it doesn't become a power struggle.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:32 AM on September 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

Not to defend the customs officer, but this usage of "refused" is unfamiliar to me. (IAMNAL, obviously.) I know you said that the Louisiana code doesn't define the term, but is there some law book or legal dictionary that does define it, where you can photocopy that page and send it to the customs officer, along with a polite explanation in your own words?
posted by alex1965 at 9:32 AM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would contact your Congressional representative (look for "constituent services" on their website) and explain the situation. They are extremely effective at cutting through bureaucracy in the federal government. I can almost guarantee this will lead to higher-level review of your case by CBP.
posted by whitewall at 9:40 AM on September 25, 2014 [19 favorites]

I would either get another lawyer to provide a definition of the word, signed and looking all official like, and I would also find a clear definition within a law book, scanning the cover of the book and the entire page with the definition. Send both the lawyer definition and the book scans. I frankly think he would accept it from another lawyer because it isn't YOU.

And if that doesn't work, then tell the customs officer you very much would like to be compliant with their request, and then ask then ask exactly what form of proof you need to provide.

Yes, this seems overkill and the guy is possibly on a power trip but you will be best served by just playing the game, making them feel like they "won".
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:42 AM on September 25, 2014

For overseas visas, our employees usually have to go to the Parish Sheriff's office and get a letter stating they have had no convictions. In Lafayette Parish this usually takes 20-30 minutes to search the database and produce a letter. Although it is mostly a form letter, if your arrest does show up they may add this to the letter to explain what refused means in that instance. They would probably accept this letter from the Sheriff's Office assuming it is the same parish the arrest was made in. There is a nominal fee for this in some parishes.
posted by Yorrick at 9:42 AM on September 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

This is in a different state, but in the same situation (false arrest, refusal to charge by the prosecutor), a motion to seal and destroy the arrest record, resulting in an order to seal and destroy the arrest record, was sufficient for the Global Entry people. The order basically expunges the arrest record and legally speaking, it is the same as if the arrest never existed. Not sure if Louisiana has a similar procedure to expunge arrest records (and it would probably take a while to accomplish) but it would also more generally erase the false arrest from your record for other purposes as well.
posted by Mallenroh at 9:47 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Going through your local Sheriff's office or Congresscritter's office seems to make the most sense. They want official documentation.

An explanation from another lawyer would be my second choice.

As silly as this situation is, I kinda-sorta understand why they don't want to rely only on your word for it, especially since you yourself admit that you're having trouble finding a clean cite for the definition of "refusal" in this context.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:49 AM on September 25, 2014

Stop worrying about refused. Get a letter saying you were never convicted, if he wants to know if you were ever convicted.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:56 AM on September 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would not assume he is on a power trip. I worked for a big bureaucracy. I sometimes had to nitpick this sort of thing. I hated doing it, but it was what I was paid for. Duh.

I would get the evidence you were never convicted that some folks are suggesting above AND also provide some kind of explanation for "refused" from someone other than you.

When I worked for said big bureaucracy, no, I could not just take someone's word for blah, even if they were a professional with expertise and all that. Why? Because of conflict of interest. You have a conflict of interest here -- you want to get this global entry doohickey -- so of course you would say "It means you can give me the thingy I want." This is why someone else needs to say "It means you can give him the thingy he wants." It might sound dumb to you, but, hey, we don't let doctor's write prescriptions for themselves. They have to go get a different doctor to write a prescription for them. Being a lawyer or law professor yourself does not excuse you from needing someone else to basically vouch for you.

Also, I understand why you are cranky about this, but I hope very much you are not coming across so contemptuously and crankily to this guy. He is just doing his job. And he is human. He most likely deals with cranky arseholes all day because it's kind of a shit job. Try being the one person in his day who isn't assuming he is stupid, just on a power trip, just fucking with them, etc. Try being the one person he deals with this week who understands there is a recession on, jobs are hard to come by, and he doesn't want to lose his. So he can't afford to be too cavalier and say "oh, sure, sounds good to me." He probably knows (or knows of) someone who did that and got fired for it.
posted by Michele in California at 10:11 AM on September 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

I feel like you've unnecessarily talked yourself into a corner here. I don't see why another lawyer's signed statement would cause a problem - of course they can't accept your word on it, you're the one applying.
posted by zug at 10:22 AM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've had experience working in a DAs office and this sort of thing was usually called "nolle prossed". Does the customs officer understand that term?
posted by dcjd at 10:22 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're thinking to much like a lawyer. The system is not designed to serve lawyers, much less Louisiana lawyers, but to serve the public. Just go to the office of your local parish Sheriff and get them to do whatever their background check procedure is that will document how you have no convictions like anyone else would. Alternatively a signed letter from any of your Louisiana colleagues with an office would probably work.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:27 AM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

And keep in mind that this program's website mentions that applicants could be denied, not only for convictions, but if there are PENDING investigations, or simply because one "cannot satisfy CBP of their low-risk status."
posted by calgirl at 11:25 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

- If you're going to use a letter from a lawyer, get it notarized. The customs guy wants his ass covered, I would think a letter from some dude will go down better if a notary confirms they are who they claim and are legally recognized as an authority.

- A document to explain what a word in another document means isn't as good as obtaining a single document that stands alone in proving no convictions (using different language). Keep your eye on the ball.

- In addition to whatever you do, get the clerk of court (AND the DA) to write your letter. You note that both will probably fail to come through, but why not try regardless - I am often advised to err on the side of additional documentation when it comes to border control bureaucracy.
posted by anonymisc at 11:30 AM on September 25, 2014

This isn't actually as stupid as it appears at first, because immigration law is very convoluted when it comes to what constitutes a conviction for immigration purposes, and this is the case because there are so many state laws that the federal immigration law must contend with. For example, many states have one or more programs for removing a conviction if the defendant successfully completes court-ordered terms, such as attending AA. The terms used by the states varies tremendously -- expunged, prosecution withheld, some nolo contendere pleas, pardon, First Offenders Act, etc. There are probably several dozen programs that either don't enter a judgment in the first place, or remove it after the fact, and under immigration law, each of these does constitute a conviction. So, the border patrol agent might be aware of how complex this is, and be seeking reassurance that this "refused" charge isn't a conviction in disguise. (Or he could be an ass. Who knows.)

I looked through my immigration law resources, on Lexus and in paper, and can't find a reference to this phrase, which tells me it hasn't come up often. And if you're finding that LA's code doesn't refer to it either, that tells me that it's a colloquialism (these are used surprisingly often in the law). The best I can suggest, then, is to contact the DA's office or the PD's office or the court's clerk, and see if one of them will draft a notation that shows what "refused" means.
posted by Capri at 1:43 PM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

dcjd has the magic words, you need your nolle prossed form or, as they say it in my state, the nolle prosequi. Not sure which it will be in Louisiana, but skip the prosecutor's office altogether and call the court clerk with your name, the date of your arrest and ask if there's a nolle on file.

If it wasn't nolle'd as in charges were never even brought, try the prosecutor and see if there's any storage of files for police reports on which charges were never even filed. If no luck there, call the clerk of the court again and see if you can get a certified notarized letter that there is no record of you on file.
posted by mibo at 6:10 PM on September 25, 2014

"refused" in your context sounds more like declining to prosecute (charges were never filed to begin with) than a nolle prosse (filed charges that were later dropped). I second talking to the sheriff and your Congress creature if that doesn't work.
posted by gatorae at 10:03 PM on September 25, 2014

Response by poster: It wasn't a null pros, charges were, in fact never brought. And I'm now no longer in Louisiana, is part of the problem---can't just drive down to the sheriff's office.

But I like the congress and just grabbing a local lawyer to do it ideas. Thanks much.
posted by paultopia at 5:49 AM on September 26, 2014

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