My Global Entry clearance was revoked – You won’t believe why

By: Michael

UPDATE 6/5/2017: A CBP officer called me on this date and noted this article had caught CBP’s attention and noted that he had reviewed my particular situation and concluded my Global Entry had been revoked for an invalid reason, apologized for the inconvenience, and noted that my Global Entry clearance had been reinstated effective immediately, bringing this situation to a successful resolution. Big thanks to those CBP agents who were professional and diligent about listening to my situation and taking the time to correct an otherwise unpleasant incident. You can see the entire update on this subsequent post

You think of abuse of power as something you just read about on the news or see on TV. You never think it will happen to you, until it does. A few weeks ago my wife and I were boarding our flight to Australia out of LAX. We were flying Virgin Australia’s business class to Sydney, so we were the first people in line to board. We ended up basically boarding last.

Right before boarding. I had no idea what was about to happen when I crossed these doors

Right before boarding. I had no idea what was about to happen when I crossed these doors

The situation:

As we were walking into the jet bridge, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) dog picked up a scent in both our bags, so two CBP agents pulled us aside and selected each of our bags for secondary screening. After a quick search, my wife’s bag was cleared. My CBP agent asked me to empty all the contents in my bag, plus my pockets. I couldn’t understand why the dog had picked out our bags (we do have a dog at home), but since it isn’t an exact science and knowing I don’t carry any illicit items or substances, I didn’t think any of it and was happy to comply. As I was doing so, the agent was asking me standard questions, such as whether I carried or consumed illicit drugs, why I had purchased my ticket only 5 days before (because sir, Virgin Australia only releases award space to partners about 5 days…..never mind…), what was an award ticket (let me tell you about our hobby….), etc.

My bag’s contents:

Eventually we got to my medications. A quick background info on those. I have always been afraid of flying (I know….with our hobby, don’t judge me), so my doctor prescribed me Xanax, which helps with anxiety, to be taken as needed when flying. I also take Ambien occasionally to help me sleep, as I’ve always had trouble falling asleep since I was a kid. The agent asked me if the two meds had been prescribed to me, to which of course I said yes, no big deal. These WERE my medications.

Now we have a problem:

This is when things got interesting. The agent pointed at the expiration dates on the bottles, and asked me what date they said. I read him back the August 2016 date. Then he asked me the current date. I didn’t like the sarcasm, but I just answered the question. The agent then said “Ok, you are actually in violation, since these medications are expired”. He never elaborated as to which rule or law I was in violation of. The agent then started asking me questions and his tone of voice started getting more aggressive. He said “I’m going to give you one opportunity to answer correctly. Tell me the proper way to dispose of expired medications”. I answered that I understood some medications should not be flushed down the toilet, while others can be simply thrown in the trash. The agent said I had answered incorrectly. I felt things were starting to get tense, and then right there and then I understood why perfectly innocent people sometimes sound really nervous while interacting with law enforcement, which is why suddenly I had a mental block as to when I had last filled these meds. I explained to the agent that the reason why my Xanax was probably expired is because I don’t fly regularly, and as I have gotten more comfortable with flying over the years, I don’t always need to take Xanax when I fly. In fact, I usually don’t anymore unless there is bad weather, etc. I just don’t think much of it, I just toss the bottle in my carry-on, and get on a plane.

Now the agent goes for the kill:

This is when things went south really quickly. The agent started getting verbally abusive and raising his voice. He told me I was carrying a controlled substance, and said “these are opioids” (which is factually incorrect; neither Xanax nor Ambien are opioids) and suggested I was abusing my medications, because “people get high on this stuff”. He also told me that since my medications were expired, that suggested that I was either stockpiling opioids, or I had obtained them illegally (because I guess those were the only two choices?). When he would state a fact and I would answer “Sure”, he would get mad and would shout back “don’t tell me ‘sure’!”. He interrupted me several times when I tried to explain myself. The agent also told me that the proper way to dispose of expired medications is to take them back to the pharmacy, where they would safely be disposed of, and “if your doctor then determines you need more, then he can issue a new prescription”.

Throughout the incident I was cooperative, kept my composure, and answered his questions. I knew I wasn’t doing anything illegal, so as long as I cooperated and did not get confrontational and gave him a reason to play the “airline safety” card, he would have to let me board the flight. Eventually and sometime after he suggested he could detain me but said didn’t want me to miss my flight, he said he was just giving me a warning for my own safety so I don’t take expired medication (his tone had softened a bit at this point), and let me continue boarding. The whole incident left a sour taste on me, but I pledged to put it behind me, or so I thought.

“Your participation in the Global Entry program has been revoked.”

Four days later as we were getting ready to go to bed in Sydney, I received an email from the GOES system that there had been an update to my account. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I logged in and confirmed my worst fear. My Global Entry privilege had been revoked. No reason was given. I felt like a criminal.

As much as I tried to avoid letting this ruin my trip, I spent the next few days reading up regulations and thinking of what I had done wrong. I also obsessed about coming back into the country, as I was sure I had already been flagged for secondary screening (which sure enough turned out to be the case on the way home in Abu Dhabi’s pre-clearance facility). The more I read up on it, the more I was convinced I had not broken any rules and my Global Entry had been unfairly revoked.

Traveling with prescription drugs – The facts:

The agent called my medication opioids. Xanax and Ambien are not opioids. He should have known better. Expiration dates printed on labels are only suggested expiration dates. In fact, after I spoke with my local pharmacist, he said they don’t put expiration dates on all medication, and those for which they do, it defaults to one year. The expiration date only applies to unopen medication. Once the bottle is open, the expiration date is meaningless.

These were legally prescribed medications. Carrying medications with a suggested expiration date is not against the law. It is also not against CBP regulations, as noted in their FAQs, which notes that Prescription medications should be in their original containers with the doctor’s prescription printed on the container.  It is advised that you travel with no more than personal use quantities, a rule of thumb is no more than a 90 day supply.  If your medications or devices are not in their original containers, you must have a copy of your prescription with you or a letter from your doctor.  A valid prescription or doctors note is required on all medication entering the U.S. 

The FDA is responsible for pharmaceutical admissibility determinations. 

The CBP FAQs make no mention of expired medications. They only suggest that they are in their original container with the prescription printed on the label, but even that is not an actual requirement, as you can carry them in a zip lock bag if you wanted to, as long as you have a doctor’s note.

It also troubled me that the agent said expired medications must be taken back to the pharmacy for disposal. At the time, I took him at his word. Turns out that too, was wrong. My pharmacist expressly said they cannot take back expired medication, and gave me a brochure on how to safely dispose of medication. To save you the extra reading, basically you either throw it in the trash mixed with used coffee grounds or other substances, and some really dangerous medications SHOULD actually be flushed down the toilet to avoid accidental use by others. In that case, your bottle’s label will say so. The CBP agent should have also known this. I can only imagine how many people have taken him at his word before just because he is in a position of authority.

Now what?

The more I researched, the angrier and frustrated I got. While the infrequent traveler might not think this is a big deal, those of us who know and love the Global Entry and TSA pre-check benefits understand how essential and convenient they are. This means not only making a long line and possibly getting searched each time I come back into the country, but making long lines each time I take a domestic flight, taking out my laptop and liquids out of my bag, taking shoes off, having to arrive at the airport earlier, etc. It’s a royal pain. The potential presumption of guilt from other CBP agents as they read on my file one of their colleagues’ notes when we come face to face as I come back into the country is particularly troubling.

While no reason was given for the revocation of my clearance, I know it was because of this incident. Based on what I have read, there also seems to be a conscientious effort on the part of CBP to revoke as many clearances as possible for seemingly minor reasons, and while I can understand violation of actual customs regulations such as bringing prohibited items (even seemingly harmless things such as fruits or plants), revoking a clearance for no apparent actual violation seems to me like a massive overreach.

I have filed a FOIA (short for Freedom Of Information Act) request to get a copy of the agent’s report and see what he wrote on it. Shortly after I filed it I received a response that it takes months to receive the report. I also filed a complaint against the agent for being verbally abusive in front of other passengers. I received a response saying “appropriate action” had been taken, which is code for “nothing”. (UPDATE: On the same day I posted this article I received a call from LAX’s CBP office asking for more information to investigate my claim, and I provided them with this information). Finally, there are basically three things you can do to request a revision of the decision, as follows:

  1. Write to the original Global Entry enrollment center where your interview was conducted.
  2. Use the DHS traveler redress inquiry program
  3. Contest the decision by writing to the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman (I went with this option)

Some friends suggested I either get a lawyer and/or write to my representative in Congress. While getting a lawyer is possibly more effective, somehow it feels wrong to have to pay a few hundred or even thousands of dollars out of my own pocket because a CBP agent wanted to show off in front of his buddies. So for now, I went the long and free way. I prepared a letter explaining the facts above, attached photos of the bottles in question, a letter from my doctor, a link and a printout of the CBP FAQs Traveling with Medications rules, and a copy of their original revocation letter. I prepared the package, scanned it and emailed it to the Ombudsman email address, and dropped a hard copy in the mail. Immediately after emailing the documents to them, I received this autoreply:

Your email message sent to the CBP Ombudsman has been received.  You will be advised when a review of your email request is complete.  If you have not received a reply to a request for reconsideration within six months, you may submit a subsequent inquiry. Thank you for your patience.

So basically in plain English this reads: “We don’t know what the deal is, but we’ll just tire you out. If you don’t hear back in 6 months, why don’t you try writing again?”

So…..yeah. See you at the long side of the TSA line.

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30 Responses to My Global Entry clearance was revoked – You won’t believe why

  1. farandwidetraveler says:

    Ugh. What a horrible thing to happen. So sorry you had to go through this. Thank goodness it wasn’t in Singapore or Thailand, though…. I’m afraid to even take antacids with me when I go to Asia!

    • travelguys says:

      @farandwidetraveler, see, that’s the thing, I know Singapore and Thailand have death penalty drug laws, but these are legally prescribed medications, not illegal drugs. All the fire drill that was created around it wasn’t necessary, IMO.

  2. Laura says:

    Crazy those people are always so rude
    Since when medication bottles have to have expiration dates that is ridiculous

  3. Diane says:

    This happened to me as well in Chicago. I got a lawyer, but that was wasted money. I travel alot, and every time now I have to go through secondary screening. I feel for you. Good luck!

    • travelguys says:

      Thank you Diane. I’ll take this as far as I possibly can without hopefully spending much. If I may ask, how much did you spend on attorney fees?

  4. anontraveller says:

    I generally avoid LAX for aggressive CBP and long ass immigration lines. LAX is a disgrace.

  5. NotThatGuy says:

    have been told by a CBP agent in Albuquerque that all Global Entry applications are being reviewed by “Washington” and that a lot of accounts that were approved are now being disqualified.

  6. James A Caulfield Jr says:

    That is absolutely outrageous. First, contact your local representatives where you live. Second, I would post this on social media, travel blogs and every local and national media outlet you can think of. If it gets air, they’ll change their tune quick.

  7. David bright says:

    You understand that global enrollment, sentri etc does not excuse you from being inspected. Second the dogs in outbound flight are for money. Not drugs.

    • travelguys says:

      @David bright, yes, I have no problem with security and enforcing border laws. They’re welcome to search my bags. But it takes an extra step for an agent to cool down, go back to his desk, write up a report, and claim I violated their rules when I clearly didn’t, and recommend my GE clearance to be revoked. That’s what I have a problem with. Regarding the dogs, does it matter what they’re for?

  8. Benjamin Perley says:

    Ridiculous. The expiration date is for the refills, not the pills themselves.

  9. john says:

    As far as returning to the US, get Mobile Passport. No interview and free. It is actually faster than Global Entry.because you don’t go to a kiosk. TSAPre is not included though.

    • travelguys says:

      @john, thanks for the tip. I’m more concerned with TSA as I travel more domestically than abroad but will consider this. Unfortunately based on what CBP has done my guess is that I will still get flagged for secondary screening each time I enter the country, but only time will tell.

      • Dan says:

        I would sign up for pre check directly with the TSA. That way you have it why you try to get global entry back.

        • travelguys says:

          @Dan, my understanding is that everything is the same database, but I could be wrong. I get TSA pre-check by putting my GE number on all my airline profiles, so I assume that won’t work after a while. If you’re not a trusted traveler for GE purposes why would you be one for TSA? They both involve the same less intrusive search and an inherent trust, but I’m happy to try it. TSA Pre is more important to me than GE as I travel more domestically than internationally.

  10. Richard Bost says:

    I think to contact your Representative or Senator (check what committees they are one) will be your best bet.
    Good luck

  11. RM says:

    I suggest you send this information to your Congressional representatives. They are the ones who need to know about these abuses.
    One more thing…. dispose of old meds at the drop off bin of your police department. It is not good to have them leach into the water supply.

    • travelguys says:

      Thanks RM. I will reach out to my rep as soon as I have time to draft a letter. As for disposing of meds I’m happy to follow instructions provided by pharmacy and FDA including dropping off at a local site.

  12. VBK says:

    So the take-away here is that if the CBP agent is in a good mood, the Global Entry works. Otherwise …

  13. gavinmac says:

    You don’t have to answer questions from CBP officers. My personal policy is that I answer questions at the primary booth but in secondary inspection I just decline to answer and tell them “I’m more than happy to cooperate with the search of my bags but I don’t answer questions.” Some officers react poorly and aggressively to this but most understand and just search the bags and let me go.

    No good can come from answering questions from a gung ho law enforcement officer about why you take medications, where you get them, how you dispose of them, etc.

    Yes, on the taxiway if you refuse to answer they would threaten to take you off the flight and they might actually do it (they make a lot of bluff threats). But if referred to secondary on return to the USA (if you’re a citizen) just tell them you won;t answer and there’s nothing they can do but make empty threats to seize your computer and hold you forever. Then they will just let you go.

    • travelguys says:

      @gavinmac, I’m a law-abiding citizen and wasn’t breaking any laws. I don’t have a problem with answering questions. I have a problem with CBP revoking my clearance based on inaccurate or baseless grounds that aren’t in violation of the law and then taking several months to even review an appeals. Thanks for the feedback!

      • gavinmac says:

        Even law abiding citizens should never answer questions from law enforcement officers who single them out and target them for questioning about possible wrongdoing. You were subjected to tense, aggressive, demeaning interrogation in front of other passengers and then your global entry privileges were revoked following that questioning.

        We don’t know if your answers to the questions contributed to the revocation of your global entry privileges. I’d be interested in a follow up after you get the FOIA results of your inspection, which will probably take six months or more.

        • travelguys says:

          @gavinmac, will definitely keep updating the post or make a new entry as new information becomes available.

  14. losingtrader says:

    @gavinmac is totally correct, except that silence can, in fact, be used against you in a criminal prosecution, which would include an officer alleging you lied. Best to invoke your rights, then STFU even if you miss your flight and even if the officer is wrong.
    There are a few ways to invoke your rights, but simply remaining silent may be used against you.

    What, you thought, “You have the right to remain silent” meant that silence couldn’t be used against you?. Guess again.

    see Salinas v. Texas, US Sup Ct.

    The only correct answer is, ” I’m represented by counsel”
    Then shut up.

    In a car stop, I’d comply with any request except a search of the vehicle.
    Your opinion of what’s innocent behavior is not the same as the government’s.

    • travelguys says:

      @losingtrader I think we’re getting away from the main issue a bit. The criminal angle and criminal proceedings are a bit of a stretch and irrelevant. If I had been breaking the law I would have been in handcuffs. If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t change a thing and I would still answer all questions and remain calm like I did. My main point is, 1-I wasn’t breaking any laws, but still an agent got my GE revoked, 2-When an agency is given unlimited power, invariably some people are going to abuse it, and 3-The process to appeal a decision is preposterous and even then you’re likely to lose even if you’re right, which is very unfortunate. Just wrote the post to bring attention to the issue and hopefully help others avoid the same outcome. I’ll have to read the case you referred to just out of curiosity. Thanks for the feedback!

  15. losingtrader says:

    BTW, the whole drug dog detection thing is a huge game because people love dogs and know they can smell things humans can’t.

    So, what could possibly go wrong?

    Oh, say a little nudge from the officer?Was the dog given a reward for the false hit on your wife’s luggage or the purportedly positive hit on yours?
    Did the dog sit down when it purportedly made the hit?
    What exactly is the signal the dog is supposed to give. Excess sniffing?
    Dogs have a notoriously high rate of hits when the authorities want to search you or your vehicle.

    • travelguys says:

      I think of dogs to be there to assist with searches where people are legitimately trying to smuggle illicit items. We need the dogs. I think none of us have a problem with bomb sniffing dogs making sure we are safe when we fly, or at the very least give the appearance of such. If a CBP office wants to search your bags they have the authority to do so, dog or no dog. TSA does it all the time under the premise of being random searches.

  16. travelguys says:

    Post has been updated to include additional information and final resolution.

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