I didn’t know the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund existed until I read about a 27-year-old software engineer named Ryan Matheson. He was traveling to Canada for the first time, a couple years ago, when he was randomly stopped by Customs officials at the border.
“Since both my friend and I are geeks and programmers, I brought some of my electronics, including my laptop computer. There was nothing bad or illegal on my computer. Through the customs and immigration process, I was immediately picked out and searched by a pair of customs officers. I knew I didn’t have anything to hide, so I willingly gave them my password to log in to my computer. Through an unusual search that lasted over four hours, they found anime illustrations from art books and other fully-clothed drawings of fictional anime and manga characters on my computer. Unfortunately, Canadian customs officers consider any comic or anime-style drawing suspicious.”
“I was charged with possession and importation of child pornography before I was ever even admitted into Canada. The police and the customs officers at the time didn’t know what the material was and called a police investigator to ask for help. The investigator, without being physically present and having no way of actually seeing the images in question, told the police that they were sure that it was child pornography. Several times that day I was told that I was going to be let free, but through delays and uncertainty of the situation, the police finally decided to arrest me. After I was arrested and the police investigators began their case, their evidence ultimately came down to two images: one was drawings depicting hand-drawn, manga-style fictional characters and the other was an image of an actual page from a manga. There was no evidence of any criminal activity or wrongdoing. I had no criminal record. I am a peaceful person and a responsible citizen. The case was dragged on for 22 months and a trial date was set for February 6th, 2012.”
As many of these cases tend to go, Matheson was faced with a dubious decision: either take the plea or risk ending up on the wrong end of a catastrophic verdict. In Matheson’s case, in addition to having to register as a sex-offender, he could have spent a year in jail. Ultimately, the charges against Matheson were dismissed, but not until after a two-year investigation featuring a draconian bail conditions that limited his use of computers and even dictated where he could work. The legal fees – over $75,000 – were paid in part by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund – but left him with a $45,000 debt.
The case sheds light on Canada’s broad, and disturbing, interpretations of child pornography laws, but also the scope of customs laws. As the Supreme Court once pointed out, “the degree of personal privacy reasonably expected at customs is lower than in most other situations.”
In other words, if you’re going to Canada, leave your laptop at home.
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Laptop Girl image via.