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Originally published Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 9:57 AM

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Canadian asks border agent to say 'please,' gets pepper spray instead

BLAINE — A Canadian man got a faceful of pepper spray at the Pacific Highway border crossing Monday because, he says, he insisted that a border inspector say "please."

The Bellingham Herald

BLAINE — A Canadian man got a faceful of pepper spray at the Pacific Highway border crossing Monday, March 2, because, he says, he insisted that a border inspector say "please."

Desiderio Fortunato, 54, is a Canadian citizen who was born in Portugal. As he sees it, border inspectors should be role models who live up to the pledges of goodwill posted on signs on both sides of the border.

But Mike Milne, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said the incident illustrates the importance of obeying lawful orders from uniformed officers, on the border or anywhere else.

Fortunato lives in Coquitlam and crosses the border two or three times a week to visit his second home in Blaine. Most of the time, he said, inspectors are courteous. But on Monday, when he attempted to cross into the U.S. shortly after noon, things were different.

"This gentleman was very aggressive to me," Fortunato said.

As Fortunato described it, the inspector ordered him to turn off his car in what Fortunato thought was a rude way.

"What I just requested was the word 'please,"' Fortunato said. "He repeated it (the order) three times and I repeated three times the word 'please.' ... He told me, 'Turn the car off or else I'm going to spray you."'

Fortunato figured the officer wouldn't make good on the threat, since he wasn't being abusive or threatening to the officer.

He miscalculated.

He said the officer sprayed him "right in the face, a foot or two from me. I was stunned. ... I was partially blind, in pain. Then he opened the door and grabbed me by my neck."

Other officers came to assist, and Fortunato found himself lying facedown, handcuffed. He said he was taken to a holding area and detained for about three hours.

Milne said privacy regulations kept him from offering specifics about Fortunato's case. But he said border agents are trained and retrained in both courtesy and appropriate use of force.

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At the first sign something may be amiss, Milne said inspectors routinely order the driver to shut off the car, rather than give the person a chance to zoom off and endanger someone.

"It's a lawful verbal command," Milne said. "The obligation in this situation is on the traveler to obey those commands."

Milne said every border crossing is equipped with audio and video monitoring, and recordings of the Fortunato incident have already been sent to both the Seattle regional CBP office and Washington, D.C., headquarters for review. That happens whenever officers use some level of force.

Fortunato said he too would like to review the video.

"Maybe my body language or something that I'm not aware of triggered that, and I would like to know," he said. "I could learn and they could learn."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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