Gunflint Trail incident raises questions about border enforcement

After dark one evening last October, a man stopped to chainsaw
and clear a fallen tree from the Gunflint Trail. While doing so, he
was struck and killed by a Border Patrol agent vehicle. That was
about all the public was told about the incident. Brief newspaper
reports stated the Cook County Sheriff’Äôs Office wasn’Äôt
releasing the name of the Border Patrol agent who was driving and
no charges were being filed.

At the time, the story as reported seemed odd to this writer,
but traffic accidents weren’Äôt on my beat. Still, someone had
struck and killed a pedestrian. Why was the driver’Äôs name
withheld from the public? And why weren’Äôt charges filed?

For months, these questions went unanswered. Finally, a grand
jury was convened in Cook County to consider the incident. In
April, the grand jury indicted the Border Patrol agent, Maranda
Weber, on two misdemeanor counts: careless driving and failure to
drive with due care. The grand jury considered a felony charge,
vehicular homicide, but did not include it in the indictment.

Agent Weber did not show up for her May 7 arraignment at the
Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais. Her attorney has requested
the case be moved to federal district court, saying he would not
get a fair trial in Cook County due to local hostility toward the
Border Patrol. Be that as it may, the incident ’Äì and its outcome
’Äì has risen from obscurity to the bright light of media
attention. Local and state media outlets are following the
story.

But why is this traffic accident in an outdoor column? Well, it
brings up some issues related to the outdoors and life along the
Canadian border. In recent years, law enforcement has become a more
noticeable presence when you are out and about in the border
country. Simply put, we are paying more attention to our borders
than we did prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

But the Border Patrol is just one of the law enforcement
entities you may encounter while outdoors. In Cook County, where I
live, law enforcement agencies also include the county sheriff’Äôs
department, the State Patrol, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement,
U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs, state conservation officers, and
off-reservation tribal conservation officers.

Cook County’Äôs year-round population is about 5,000. Since most
of the country is wild land, all day-to-day traffic occurs on a
handful of primary roads. With so many agencies on patrol, it
sometimes seems that every other vehicle you pass is a squad. Since
we have a pretty low crime rate, some folks consider this
enforcement overkill.

Does this mean we are hostile to the Border Patrol or other
enforcement? No, though the Border Patrol did raise a ruckus when
it proposed building a secure compound complete with a perimeter
fence and helipads in Grand Marais. Some, not all, in the community
questioned whether such a facility was necessary. A passionate
debate (not unusual here) continued until Congressman Jim Oberstar
finally said the Department of Homeland Security didn’Äôt have the
money to build the facility anyway.

That may have settled the debate, but it didn’Äôt answer all the
questions associated with an increased enforcement presence along
the Minnesota-Ontario border. It is an overstatement to say there
is hostility toward the Border Patrol or any other agency, but fair
to say the folks who live along the border are asking legitimate
questions about the appropriate amount of border enforcement and
appropriate behavior when officers make contact with folks who live
or recreate here.

In addition to the Gunflint Trail accident, I have heard a
handful of secondhand accounts of driving incidents involving
Border Patrol vehicles presumably going too fast for the conditions
on northwoods’Äô roads. I also talked to an angler who had a Border
Patrol helicopter hover directly over his portable fishing tent on
a border lake last winter, staying there until he stepped outside,
then flying off. He told other, again secondhand, stories of
less-than-pleasant encounters other anglers and border residents
have had with the agency.

Of course, you can hear stories about cops just about anywhere
there are police. And since the Border Patrol officers are
essentially the new, highly visible cops in the woods, it stands to
reason they will attract scrutiny and criticism. This is especially
true given the sparse population and vast area of northern
Minnesota, where everything occurs in a fishbowl and word travels
remarkably quickly via the ’Äúmoccasin telegraph.’Äù

By and large, I think, most folks in the north are satisfied
with law enforcement. Certainly, the hiring of state conservation
officers was widely applauded. In Grand Marais, there is demand for
additional Coast Guard coverage, especially during the dangerous
fall months. Most of us also realize law enforcement provides
good-paying, year-round jobs, something that is always a benefit to
northern communities.

Still, there are the procedural oddities associated with the
Gunflint Trail incident that suggest there is a double standard for
the Border Patrol and perhaps other law enforcement agencies
regarding violations or possible violations of the law. That is not
conducive to good community relations or developing trust between
law enforcement and the community it serves. The public deserves
better.

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