It was just supposed to be another fast-paced, international scramble when I departed the Shambhala Music Festival in British Columbia on a Sunday morning. I was heading back to Seattle to catch a quick flight to Mexico City to gather more merchandise for the upcoming Oregon Eclipse Festival.
As I approached the U.S. border, I knew I had nothing to hide. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I did with $8,000 Canadian dollars from the festival that I put under the seat of the company van. This money was still completely legal and all of my merchandise had been inspected and signed off by U.S. Customs upon entry just a couple of days prior. The duties, taxes, and fees were covered and I had receipts to back it up.
When questioned by the U.S. border guard about my time spent in Canada, I was honest and of course this resulted in being asked to pull over for inspection. Not the least bit worried, I got comfy in the waiting room. However, as time passed, I noticed a K9 Unit involved with the inspection, and was no longer comfy. After an hour, the guards came in and asked if I had money to declare. They had obviously found the cash and wanted to discuss it. So, I declared what was there and they then questioned me about my business. I had solid answers and explained I had documentation backing my story right next to me in my laptop, but funny enough, they never seemed interested in investigating them.
I stayed calm, understanding that the amount of cash was well under the mandatory declare limit and all was legit. However, it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to make it to Seattle in time for my flight. Instead, I’m stuck in a little border check station in Eastern Washington, getting the third degree from some bumpkin officers.
Next thing you know, the border guard with the dog comes in all excited to have found the “drugs” he was looking for. He had in his hands a tiny brown glass bottle with a screw cap on it and wanted me to admit that it was narcotics. I explained that it was a free sample bottle of essential oil that the company gives out by the hundreds, but they said they were going to test it.
After about another hour, the Sergeant came over to me and said he knew what was in the bottle and that if I didn’t come clean, I was going right to jail. I explained again that it was simply an essential oil blend with sunflower, lavender, neem, tea tree, and geranium. He began to actually shout at me, “ God damn it, you’re going to be arrested and sent to jail, quit bullshitting me!” I told him that if he thought there were drugs in that little sample bottle, he was mistaken. He turned around and stormed out, leaving me alone with my rattled thoughts. Were these just scare tactics? Did they truly believe I had drugs in that bottle?
After a while the Sergeant came back and explained that they didn’t have a Sheriff nearby to arrest me, but they would be handing over the bottle to the Washington Drug Task Force in the morning and would most likely issue a warrant for my arrest. Then I was told they would be seizing my money because it was under the seat with the “drugs”. What? That was a lie! The bottle of essential oil was in my shaving kit five feet away from the seat.
It came to the time that I had to ask the question any rational person in my situation would ask: “what drug is it testing positive for?” They told me it was being tested for meth or MDMA. A wave of relief came over me when he said this, because I’ve never even heard of MDMA or meth in liquid form. I then explained that I would be back in the morning to retrieve my money and clear my name with the Drug Task Force—and that’s what I did.
Returning to the border station after a short night of sleep in a motel, I gave my name to the new officer on duty and he immediately knew who I was ; “You’re right on time Mr. Coughlin. The Drug Task Force just arrived.” Perfect, I thought. Let’s talk with some real professionals and clear up this nonsense.
While at the hotel the previous night I found a full-size bottle of the essential oil. When the drug officers came out to meet me, I shook their hands and said, “I don’t mean to self-incriminate, but if I smuggled drugs across the border yesterday, I may have actually have smuggled a lot.” The two officers looked at me confused and I handed them the full size bottle. “That’s exactly what’s in the little bottle you guys seized last night.” They asked if they could test it, and I insisted that they did.
Next, they took me in for interrogation. Now, it should probably be said that these officers were not the clean-cut experts that I had expected to show up and clear my name. Instead, these guys were a couple of plainclothes country numskulls, both chewing tobacco while interviewing me. The officer in charge was wearing a shirt with AK47s depicted on it that read “BLACK GUNS MATTER”. I no longer felt secure in my future and began to wonder if coming back was a mistake.
They asked questions about my business, of which I had clear answers. They tried to explain how me bringing merchandise up to Canada from California doesn’t make sense because the Canadian dollar is down. I gracefully explained that he had no idea what the fuck he was talking about and that it makes a ton of sense. I then reiterated that I have all the documentation for the money right next to me in my laptop, yet nobody was interested in looking at it. I argued that if I have full receipts and documentation of everything discussed, including thousands in vendor fees for the Shambhala Music Festival, and if this money is being called drug money, then the real question is, where the fuck is the clothing money? He didn’t have a response to this and concluded the questioning.
I sat there in purgatory for what felt like an eternity—but was in reality probably about 45 minutes— until finally the two drug officers came out from behind the door with a couple of the border guards and asked me to stand up. Holy shit! This was really happening! “Please put your hands behind your head.” The drug officer commanded.
Time froze in this landscape. Miranda Rights filled the air behind me and I was stunned to my marrow as I heard the words, “You’re being charged with felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver.” Then walked in a female Sheriff who grabbed me by the arm to escort me to her police truck. The drug officers were walking about ten feet behind us. I turned back to look at them and asked, “Do you really think I had drugs?” The officer in charge calmly said, “Everything will be alright.” And you know something funny? I believed him. Not because I thought he knew something that I didn’t, but because everything seems to always work out on some cosmic level and I understood that I truly didn’t do anything illegal. I fell into one of those surrender moments and everything just felt at peace as I was loaded into the cop car.
The country valleys en route to jail were breathtaking and I gave thanks that I was seeing this amazing landscape, even under the circumstances. Handcuffed in the back seat, I felt like a free man and I walked into that jail house with the confidence of a crooked stock broker that expects to be out in an hour. . .
After a humiliating entry process, I was put into the classic black and white stripes and thrown into a holding cell by myself. I was given a cheap sleeping mat, so I laid down and dozed right off. I awoke some time later to a guard entering my cell saying, “It’s your lucky day buddy, you’re out of here.” “Oh, good,” I told him. “Jail sucks!” Then he said, “Oh, sorry, you’re not out of jail, you’re just going to a better cell that has a TV.”
I had expected to be out of jail in no time, however, I wasn’t familiar with the broken system that our country has in place and how difficult it can be to get someone out of jail. Especially if that someone lives out of state and all the people trying to post bail live out of state. During my first day in jail, I vowed that I would use this experience to help others who have fewer resources and family than I do, for if it wasn’t for them, I would have sat in that cell for two weeks as an innocent man watching my business and personal life crumble. I did finally get out of jail four days later — after a lot of meditation, sketching, poker, singing, wall ball and fortunately being able to help my cell mate write a letter to the judge, hoping to get him back to his family sooner.
Now that some time has passed and I feel comfortable opening up about this, I’m ready to fight back. As you may guess, the charges were all dropped after the laboratory results came in. All it cost me was thousands of dollars in lost sales at the Oregon Eclipse Festival,hefty lawyers fees, along with days of my life in jail. But, I’m happy it all went down that way because now I have a call to arms and through my new design and apparel project, Liquid Dreams, I will raise money and awareness for the ACLU. For almost 100 years, the ACLU has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
So, that’s my wild little story, but I’m far from alone and it’s certainly not over. If you have a story that involves police and/or government abuse, corruption or civil rights being violated, please share it with me and we can use it to fight for a better system. I thank you for reading this long piece to the end and beg you to please share my story and sign up for a membership to the ACLU today.
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