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What you should know if you are detained at the border

Immigration and customs lawyers share the red flags that might raise the suspicions of border security officers - and how you can end the encounter quickly.

Here are some red flags that raise the suspicions of border security officers

The Customs Act allows border security officers to detain and search people if they have reasonable grounds to suspect illegal activity. (CBC)

Some immigration and customs lawyers aren't surprised when they hear people are detained at airports and borders, sometimes for hours at a time, only to find an officer's suspicions were wrong. 

Cyndee  Todgham-Cherniak, an international trade lawyer with LexSage Professional Corporation, said navigating the Canada Border Services Agency website isn't easy — and that means people who lack an understanding of the law make mistakes.

Here are some things she said travellers should know if they are ever stopped at a border crossing.

Red flags

The CBSA has a list of indicators officers look for that it doesn't publish.

These include reasons like travelling to what the CBSA considers a drug-source country, having a dry mouth, and buying a ticket at the last minute.

Other red flags include paying cash for your ticket or having laxatives in your luggage.

"That is something that they look for because a lot of drug mules have their tickets purchased for them and engage in the travel in the last minute," Todgham-Cherniak said.

Even something like having a lot of coffee in your suitcase can arouse suspicion, as the smell can be used to trick drug sniffing dogs.

A border security officer is supposed to find more than one indicator to escalate their examination.

What are your rights?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies even at the border, but sections of the Canadian Customs Act and immigration legislation give border security officers jurisdiction to do things other officers of the law can't.

For example, Section 99 of the Customs Act gives border agents the right to search travellers and their personal belongings if they have "reasonable grounds" to suspect someone is doing something illegal. A police officer on the other hand, needs a warrant to search your home.

International trade lawyer Cyndee Todgham-Cherniak said it's best to co-operate with an officer if you have nothing to hide and are detained. ( Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

You can always ask to speak to a supervisor or lawyer, but Todgham-Cherniak cautions that could escalate the situation depending on the personality of the officer.

"If you ask to speak to a lawyer that then can cause the CBSA officer to say to you, 'Why do you think you need a lawyer? We're just having a conversation here.'"

An officer can't engage in an invasive body cavity search without getting approval from a supervisor. Most airports also have x-ray machines, so Todgham-Cherniak recommends offering to take an x-ray if you are falsely accused of being a drug mule.

File a complaint

If you are detained and then released and you feel you've been treated unfairly, Todgham-Cherniak said you can file a complaint.

But as CBSA doesn't yet have an independent watchdog to provide oversight, those complaints are dealt with internally by border services.

Todgham-Cherniak said you can file a complaint afterwards, but there is currently no watchdog agency overseeing Canada Border Services activity. (CBC)

And if you've been let go without any charges or action taken against you, Todgham-Cherniak said there's not much to challenge.

"All you are doing is continue to relive this negative experience that you've had at the border by trying to pursue some sort of redress."

She said CBSA officers have a code of conduct, but not every officer follows it in every circumstance.

An oversight agency has been promised by the federal government in this year's budget. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promised $24.42 million over five years to expand the mandate of the Civilian Review Complaints Commission, which handles complaints against the RCMP.

Why do they do this?

Todgham-Cherniak said in most cases of being wrongfully detained, it helps to think of the perspective of another person in the airport or at that border crossing. Everyone wants border security to do its job and ask all the questions.

"It's only when it's you, and the CBSA is wrong about you and making an assumption that is totally false that's the situation where you think, 'It shouldn't be this way,'" she said.

"Unfortunately there are always going to be cases where good people are mistreated at the border because a CBSA office has made a decision about them and wants to test his theory."

With files from Maria Jose Burgos