Tequila, U.S. surveillance and me


Do we all have something to hide? Hopefully so.

My life was scheduled to change on September 12th 2001. I was supposed to move to the US, through New York, to study at Stanford for my PhD. That didn't happen, of course. The day before, as I was saying goodbyes to friends at home, we watched horrific images on television. We learned through the TV ticker tape that all transatlantic flights were grounded. I remember staying in bed for the whole week after that, sick from egoistic stress: it felt as if World War III was about to erupt, and I was moving across the world in the middle of all that. Still, in the days that followed, I tried day after day to get a seat on a plane so I could move on time for my classes. Eventually, I flew in on September 17th, still routed through New York. I remember feeling relief when we took off. When we arrived though, we circled around the long plume of smoke and I felt overwhelmed with what had actually happened. Around me, all the passengers were New York residents, sobbing as they discovered the changed landscape of their city.

I flew on, and landed in California. Like everyone else, I rushed to buy a bike after realising how humongous the campus is. I remember making all the efforts to settle in: social security number, campus card, bank account, etc. Bought a phone and all the other dorm essentials. The general impression (on campus) was that the "events" were an East Coast thing, still far from the relatively peaceful West. Anyways, there was little time to reflect: it was the first week of classes, where I quickly understood how hard my first year would be leading up to my qualification exams. It was my 20th birthday that week. The older grad students had organised a party at the end of the first week, so I celebrated with them.

Unfortunately, I had never drunk tequila. And even less so the el cheapo Walmart kind. After 2-3 shots, I was tired and ready to walk home, pushing my bike. I didn't make it though: on the way, in Escondido Village (the grad student residences), I collapsed. From drunkeness, sure, but also exhaustion, stress, hunger and immaturity, having never lived outside of the parental cocoon. And that's when the Stanford campus police showed up. They had been called for another party, but found me sitting there, next to my bike. They started giving me all the sobriety tests, while I was just asking for them to let me go home. Eventually they arrested me, and slapped the charge of resisting arrest on top (even though that "resistance" was only verbal, as confirmed to me later by witnesses). This allowed them to bring me to the "drunk tank", unfortunately located in San Jose, a good 50 miles away. This was actually next to the big real jail, which I got to see from the inside in the morning when I was released (presumably to impress the "nightly" residents like me, so they would not be tempted to come back for a longer stay). Waiting outside that Sunday morning was a long rank of taxicabs, each driver coming with a good dose of psychology to help reorient their clients in society. Where was I? What time is it? Etc.

California: California Penal Code 647(f) considers public intoxication a misdemeanor. The code describes public intoxication as someone who displays intoxication to liquor, drugs, controlled substances or toluene and demonstrates an inability to care for themselves or others, or interferes or obstructs the free use of streets, sidewalks or other public way. California Penal Code 647(g) affords law enforcement the option to take an individual fitting the arrest criteria for 647(f), and no other crime, into civil protective custody if a "sobering facility" is available. Essentially, the detainee agrees to remain at the location until the facility's staff consents to their departure; usually after four hours and upon the belief that the detainee is safe to look after themselves. Not every municipality in California has such a facility. Also, if a person is being combative and/or is under the influence of drugs, they will be taken to jail. Unlike a person who is taken to jail, a civil detainee under 647(g) is not later prosecuted in a court of law.

California code

The more damaging consequence is that I now had a court date. It was a pretty bad situation to be in: the cops had slapped on an extra charge, so they were clearly hostile. Did they make up anything in the extended written report for the judge? I could not see it, unless I challenged the charge. I could do that by either hiring my own lawyer or committing to a public defender. The private lawyers I visited in Palo Alto all required deposits, since their goal would be to litigate for as long as I would pay. The public defender would not even talk to me or tell me how the cost would be defined unless I committed to that system. On top, it didn't really make sense to contest the charge: it is written very generically and includes "obstructing sidewalks" as an offense, a nice catchall for all kinds of mendicity, public drunkenness, etc. Me and my bike fit in there, if only for a few minutes.

I called my embassy for help. They could not do anything, but from their perspective my case fit in a pattern of campus arrests over the past weeks, presumably so foreign students could be fingerprinted. I decided to plead guilty, and was promptly given a misdemeanor charge and a criminal record. This was the expected outcome, fair according to California law given the charges assigned by the campus police. The judge told me that I could wait for a year then get this expunged from my record, and to stay away from "those campus parties". For a year wherever I showed up to a party, I significantly increased the legal liability of the host (being still underaged).

In the three years that followed, flying was more painful for me than the average. I learned a new word: selectee. It was easy to double guess the TSA in my case: my criminal record was flagging me more often than the average foreign student from an allied country. This stopped though, around 2004. A bit later I also expunged the record, so I would not have to report it when applying for US postdocs (Harvard, for instance, has such a screening question). In the decade since, even after moving to the UK and Switzerland, I flew regularly to the U.S.

In August 2012, I got a surprise at SFO though, on my way to my PhD adviser's birthday conference. Suddenly, I was assigned for additional interrogation. I had to wait for two hours before the TSA officer talked to me. That's a long time to ask yourself why. Was it random? Was it due to my arrest 11 years earlier? For two hours I just had to sit and wait.

When I finally got to talk to the officer, right away he asked me questions about my arrest. I was relieved to explain my boring story, of how I got drunk one night when I turned 20. It still confuses me why this would pop up 11 years after the fact, so blatantly this time. The officer could not tell, and when asked he told me it could happen again. It's hard for me to shake this up. How badly is TSA drowning itself in big data if that really is the basis for interrogating a traveler?

In any case, I am writing this now on the plane, somewhere close to Greenland. In a few hours I will land at JFK. I look forward to seeing the new Freedom tower on approach, and hope its completion can bring some sense of closure to as many people as possible.

After going through JFK immigration, I will go on to Pittsburgh to a Human Computation conference.

(To all academics who have found out the hard way that campus police is not there to encourage free speech)

(Edit, written from JFK: there was too much fog to see the new tower at landing, and probably will be on departure to Pittsburgh. However, I had the "chance" of being selected once again. This time I had to wait for an hour, and they asked me to explain why I had been arrested in "September 2001". I did, then asked if this would happen everytime. The officer said that it would, because it is directly flagged from my fingerprints. I look forward to the day of portable scanners and what not, as well as to data transfers back to Europe.)