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Denied at the Border for a Traffic Ticket?

It is not surprising that U.S. Customs and Border Protection ("CBP") officers will commonly block entry into the U.S. of someone who was convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude (think: worst of the worst), or someone who previously overstayed their visa; but what about traffic tickets? Do CBP officers really care if a Canadian citizen never paid or forgot to show up at court for that Washington speeding ticket from five years ago?

The short answer is "yes"-and it is more common than you may at first think.

Let's look at a common scenario.

A British Columbia driver-we will call him "Mike"-is pulled over in Washington and issued a traffic citation. This traffic citation could be for any one of a number of infractions: speeding, impeding traffic, making an improper lane change, or failing to obey traffic signs to name a few. Whatever the citation is for, Mike has three options:

1) pay the ticket;
2) show up at the hearing for the ticket indicated on the ticket and argue that he did not do whatever it is that he was written a ticket for doing; or
3) explain that there was an excusable reason or mitigation that should weigh in his favor in reducing or suspending the fine.

However, Mike chose a fourth option which isn't on the menu; he decides that he will ignore the ticket because he thinks a U.S. traffic ticket won't have any effect on his B.C. driver's license.

The date for the hearing comes and Mike has neither shown up at the hearing nor paid the fine-so the Court reports Mike's failure to appear to the Washington State Department of Licensing ("DOL").

The DOL, as the part of the Washington State government responsible for licensing Washington drivers, is also responsible for regulating the driving privileges of non-Washington drivers on Washington roadways. The DOL can suspend a Washington driver's license or a non-Washington driver's driving privilege for a number of reasons; one of which is a driver's "Failure to Appear in Court or Pay Tickets."

Based on the Court's report that Mike did not appear in court or pay the fine for his ticket, the DOL suspended Mike's driving privilege. The suspension was then reported to the various state and local law enforcement agencies in the State of Washington. Driving in Washington when your license or privileges are suspended is against the law. If Mike is pulled over for any reason while driving in Washington and the police officer sees that his driving privileges are suspended, he will probably be arrested and face significant further ramifications including additional fines, jail time, a minimum one-year loss of his driving privileges, and the revocation of his Nexus card. However, in our story Mike is not pulled over in Washington, he is refused entry to the U.S. at the border. How is that possible?

The answer is that CBP officers have great latitude to determine whether to allow a foreign individual to enter the U.S.

When Mike's failure to appear was reported to the various police agencies, it was then also available to CBP. Because Mike didn't pay his traffic ticket and didn't show up to court, CBP can make the decision to deny Mike entry into the U.S. This decision to deny entry might be made immediately (i.e. the very next time Mike tried to cross the border) or it could take years to the point where Mike didn't even remember what the original ticket was for. Either way, Mike is now standing at the border and is told he needs to turn around because he can't come in.

So what does Mike do next; how does he remedy this situation?

First and foremost, he Cannot just try his luck at another border crossing. Attempts to cross the border are electronically recorded and he has already been denied entry once. Attempting to cross at another border crossing on the same day Mike was denied could end up in him being barred from entering the U.S. for life.

The only way to actually fix the situation is to first satisfy the outstanding "Failure to Appear" with the Court where the original hearing was to be held. This may involve Mike paying both the original fine and an additional fine for failing to appear or it could mean that he needs to comply with the Court's order to appear in court. This may seem a catch-22: Mike is denied entry to the U.S. because of a "Failure to Appear," and he can't satisfy the Court's order by appearing because he is denied entry to the U.S. However, if he is required to appear, his attorney will be allowed to appear on his behalf in order to comply with the Court's order.

Once all fines have been paid and the "Failure to Appear" is cleared up, the Court will send a "Certificate of Adjudication" to the DOL letting them know that Mike has done everything he needs to do. The DOL will then update Mike's Washington driving record to remove the "Failure to Appear" and to reinstate his driving privileges, which will again be reported to all of the law enforcement agencies in the State of Washington and-most importantly for our purposes-to CBP.

If Mike's scenario sounds similar to a situation you or a friend or relative is experiencing and you would like to speak with one of our lawyers email or call 1.800.222.6332. Depending on your specific case, there may be additional or substitute steps to take before entry to the U.S. can be obtained.

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