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Restraining orders at US Customs and Border Protection

Angela, the woman who had restraining orders against me for about eight years, successfully petitioned for her first restraining order against me in Dec 2008.  After I was served with the copy of the final restraining order, there was little further drama for a couple of years and I avoided contact with Angela.  During those first two years, I was unable to travel internationally due to financial limitations.

After a couple of years, though, that changed when improvements in my employment situation led to more travel both personally and for work.  During my first trip to Canada, there were no problems in leaving the US, but the experience when returning to the US was definitely different with a restraining order in effect.  In flying back to the US from Canada, at most of the major Canadian airports one clears US Customs and Border Protection in Canada before boarding one's flight, rather than at the US destination airport.  This is known as "preclearance".  When I arrived at the preclearance location, the process of clearing customs started in the normal way.  But at a certain point it became evident that something had showed up on the officer's screen that he wasn't happy with.  He started asking questions like "have you ever been arrested?" and "what brought you to Canada?"  Eventually he put my documents in a folder, wrote some kind of code on the customs form, and directed me to a back room known as the "secondary inspection" area.

Secondary inspection is a mechanism by which US Customs detains travelers for more intense inspections.  At the primary inspection area, the officers are generally allotted only a limited amount of time to screen each traveler.  If the traveler cannot be cleared in that time frame, they are sent to secondary inspection where there is a much longer delay.  People get sent to secondary inspection for various reasons.  Sometimes it is random.  Sometimes people's answers at primary inspection don't quite add up in the estimation of the officer.  Sometimes noncitizens are entering the US with more complex paperwork than an ordinary tourist or business traveler and it takes more time to process their entry.  It seems, however, that with an active restraining order, one gets sent to secondary inspection most of the time whether a citizen or not.

Mostly for me secondary inspection just involved a delay.  The first few trips to secondary inspection resulted in delays of about 45 minutes or so.  I've heard of much longer delays though.  When going through preclearance a delay can present a problem because if delayed for too long, one can miss one's flight.  That first time, I waited for about 45 minutes without much to do (you have to turn off all electronic devices in the secondary inspection area).  After about 45 minutes, I was finally called up to see an officer in the secondary inspection area.  The actual questions at secondary inspection were quite brief--no more detailed than at primary inspection.  The officer did mention Angela by name and asked a bit about the restraining order, but not in a lot of detail.  He also briefly searched my luggage and then cleared me to proceed and catch my flight.

After my first trip to secondary inspection, I'd hoped that they would have "cleared" the restraining order in their system and noted that, although I had a restraining order, there were no associated arrests or warrants that would lead to a problem entering the country.  However it seemed that the process of clearing secondary inspection had to be repeated each time.  My second trip abroad was just a few weeks later, and this time I went to Asia and cleared US customs stateside.  Again the officer at primary inspection noticed something awry in my records and asked me some questions that were directed at the restraining order, and sent me to secondary inspection.  There I waited, again for about 45 minutes, before being cleared to enter the country.

These trips to secondary inspection presented a couple of problems for me.  One is that they were embarrassing especially when traveling on business with people who didn't know about the order and presumably thought of me as an upstanding member of the community.  It is embarrassing to be singled out of a group one is traveling with and directed to a back room for further questioning.  If traveling with a group on business, I often ended up coming up with an excuse to not travel back with the group to avoid this embarrassment.  I'd still fly out to the foreign destination with the group, as I never had problems leaving the US.  But I might ask to take a couple of days off to visit the foreign country as a tourist, thereby avoiding traveling back with the group.  Alternatively, if the other members of the group opted for their own reasons to stay in the other country for a few days as tourists, I'd come up with a reason why I needed to return immediately--and therefore could be sure of traveling on a different flight.  Fortunately, I've never had to travel internationally so much that these habits attracted too much attention.

I also noticed that the customs officials at preclearance locations in Canada were just a notch less intimidating than their counterparts at US airports.  I believe that is because the preclearance officers in Canada don't directly have the powers of arrest since they are not in their own country.  For this reason, when returning to the US from a business trip in Asia, I would often arrange to connect through an airport in Canada so as to clear US customs in Canada.

The questions asked at secondary inspection generally seemed to assume a past relationship between myself and Angela, because restraining orders are often sought in divorce cases.  The questioning would usually open with something like "who's Angela?", "have you ever been married?", or "are you still married to Angela?"  In fact I've never been married to Angela, but they seem to make certain assumptions in these secondary inspections.  One officer did tell me that the reason for such an inspection is to verify that the two people aren't travelling together, which would be a violation of the order.  Regardless of the reasons for the secondary inspection, these trips to secondary inspection were probably the most inconvenient part of having a restraining order against me.  Once the final restraining order expired, I have never again had to go to secondary inspection.


  1. Yes, this is my dilemma also. I was told originally, as were you, that they want to ensure the parties involved in the restraining order are not traveling together. No one has ever quoted the actual legal statute to me.

    I live in California and thought it was a state law. The laws regarding restraining orders are different from state to state. When I recently returned to the country through Houston, I thought I would bypass the embarrassment of being red flagged because I wasn't coming through customs in Los Angeles. But it wasn't the case. I was red flagged (you get a big X on that receipt that gets spit out of the kiosk at customs - which sends you to another line).

    As for the secondary room, I was sent there only on my first two return trips from abroad. As I've traveled more internationally, maybe they keep a record of those travels, and have noted that each time I returned without incident or violating their law. As a result, I've only had to do the first line since.

    Because the feds are curious if we're traveling with the person who initiated the restraining order, I wonder if that person would also be stopped at customs and questioned?

    While some restraining orders are, of course, vital, many are simply a tool used by a parent to steal custody away from their spouse - obtained through perjury and a low burden of proof. Restraining orders are terribly abused in this country.

  2. Since 1994, all states have been required by VAWA (I believe in exchange for certain funding of restraining order programs) to have laws on the books enforcing each other's restraining orders. So if you have a restraining order in effect in one state, it can be enforced in another state. The determination of whether a violation occurred would be based on the original state's laws, but the exact penalty would depend on the destination state's laws. Both laws can vary a bit from state to state, so both state's laws come into play.

    If one is caught travelling with the protected party at the border, I believe one would be prosecuted under the state law of the state the CBP facility is in. If CBP suspects a violation has occurred, they would turn the person over to the local authorities for possible eventual prosecution under state (not federal) law. So if your restraining order is in California, but you were found travelling with the person in Texas, you would be prosecuted under Texas law and Texas penalties would apply.

    I don't know whether the protected person is also questioned at customs. I thought I read once that they are.

    In the case of the restraining orders, now expired, against me, I wouldn't claim that they were obtained by perjury. At least some of the allegations made by Angela were true, but what was more questionable in my view was whether I ever posed a threat to her. In one statement that she made, Angela acknowledged that I'd never threatened her in any way, which was true but also made me wonder why there was a restraining order in place in the first place.