Random car search - how thorough was it?
May 31, 2015 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I got chosen for a random car search yesterday at the US/Canada border, and I have a few questions about it.

Crossed from Canada into the US yesterday, at Niagara Falls. Got picked for a random car check. They didn't find anything, and after about ten minutes of sitting in the lobby, I got my keys and license back and was sent on my merry way.

1. How thorough was their search? There were things on the floor of the front passenger seat that didn't look like they were touched at all, and the heavy IKEA boxes in the back seat area didn't look like they were moved. I know they at least looked at the stuff in my trunk, because they moved the cover I have over it, but did they take it out and go through it? (If they did, they probably took one whiff of my sun-baked roller derby gear and went NOPE NOPE NOPE.)

2. Will this make me more likely to be searched on future trips? I go to Canada every few months or so, often with friends, and I'd hate to have to subject them to this just because they're with me.
posted by Lucinda to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total)
1. There is no way of knowing how thorough the search was. However, going northbound, I have reason to believe they did not search inside my bags to the very bottom. The inspections may well be cursory.

2. Unlikely. Even if you do end up in some kind of frequent search line, your stay there may be temporary. I was searched a few times going southbound in 2005 after changing residency status. It was temporary, I haven't been searched southbound for years.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:27 PM on May 31, 2015

I would assume it was either random or something about the situation that day raised suspicions until it happens at least twice.
posted by grouse at 2:33 PM on May 31, 2015

1 - Not very thorough, I'd guess. They have a number, and they also have a pretty good profile of who smuggles stuff. If you don't fit that profile, they're really just looking for the obvious stuff that an amateur might be "smuggling" (and amateurs don't hide things well).

2 - Not if it was really a random search, and if it wasn't really a random search, they would have been more thorough than 10 minutes. You're fine.
posted by Etrigan at 2:47 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's usually random as dictated by a computer. A certain percentage of cars will be randomly flagged for secondary inspection. We live right by the Canadian border and cross several times a month. We have been selected like this once in 4 years. They really were nice about it, and mostly wanted to check that we actually knew what was in the car. Once they were happy with that, the inspection itself was thorough but cursory, as in "look in all compartments, pockets, etc." but no close examination of contents. I don't think it affects future searches at all. They seem to be based on (a) randomness; (b) officer suspicion; and sometimes (c) a name on a list. Regarding the last, a border officer friend of ours had to detain a friend of his because of a name match, even though he knew for sure it wasn't the same individual. So, discretion of the officer isn't a major component. However, they do periodically through the day do random shuffles of which officers are manning which lanes, to prevent collusion between officers and border-crossers.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 4:43 PM on May 31, 2015

I've crossed the border to Canada in a car several times. Sometimes they just ask if I have guns,pop my trunk, look at it and let me go. Sometimes they spend 1/2 hour searching my car and questioning me. The last time they did this(at the ferry terminal from WA in Victoria BC) they told me it was because "it didn't look right" for a woman to be traveling alone. I posted it to Everyday Sexism Canada.
posted by brujita at 5:05 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Could they have had a dog sniff the car which avoids the need to open things that don't get a hit?
posted by AugustWest at 8:52 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

1. How thorough was their search?

Not very, probably. I've been in searched vehicles more than once (in both directions) and while the border agents aren't (usually) jerks, they're definitely not Special Agent 007 good at searching the vehicle thoroughly while leaving no trace. If it looks like something didn't get moved, it probably didn't get moved.

And this matches several of mine or my friends' encounters with various law enforcement agents, including border agents - they're looking for the fairly obvious, either for a quick bust or as a reason to dig much deeper. You didn't have a trunk full of cigarettes or a bag of weed in your glove compartment or a crack pipe on the dashboard or anything like that, so they got done quickly and sent you on your way.

2. Will this make me more likely to be searched on future trips?

I doubt it; at least not in the sense that if you got searched once your name is now on some kind of "Search this person regularly!" list. I've been in vehicles searched more than once simply because of the circumstances - with bands on tour, which means multiple adult males unrelated but in the same vehicle (which I would think is a potentially suspicious arrangement), plus (especially on the way back into the U.S.) I strongly suspect that some Border Patrol officers tend to think "band" = "shenanigans with weed and/or cash." But I've never gotten any sense that border agents were on the lookout for us due to having been previously searched.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:26 PM on May 31, 2015

I was selected for a car search at the Detroit-Windsor border last winter, on the Windsor side. I think they have to do a number of random searches daily & my number came up. They were thorough but not murder-evidence search thorough. They opened & inspected the trunk, opened the styro cooler I keep in it too. They looked in all seating areas, opened all storage nooks, etc. I was told to take my wallet only to the office area, so I assume they looked in my purse also. I didn't feel nervous and am confident I will cross the border again w/o problems.

The really troubling aspect to me was how rude & disrespectful the TSA agent at the American side was. The man was on a major power trip & it was really disturbing to me, he was clearly enjoying his role as 'protector' of the world. Meanwhile, the Canadians wished me a good day etc. It was like night & day.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 7:19 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Too late to correct my post, I am thinking it was Homeland Security I spoke to at the border? Sorry for slinging mud at the wrong gov't agency.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 3:08 PM on June 1, 2015

It would have been Customs and Border Protection, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, which is also over the TSA.
posted by Etrigan at 3:17 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Transportation Security Agency is part of the Department of Homeland Security. But it was probably another part of Homeland Security—Customs and Border Protection—that you encountered.
posted by grouse at 3:17 PM on June 1, 2015

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