On our way home from the obligatory (yet impressive) trip to the Grand Canyon, my now-wife and I had just passed Casa Grande on Interstate 10 when I noticed a car behind us. This conspicuous car remained in the left lane without the slightest intention to pass.
After a few miles, we were approaching a truck ahead of us in the right lane, so I sped up to 80 mph, as I didn't want to be locked between a truck and that ominous car shadowing me on the left rear. I had barely cracked the speed limit when our pursuer turned on those funny, rotating lights.
I rolled down the window, license and insurance card handy. "OK, officer, I know I was speeding; how much will the ticket be?"
"It's not about your speed; it's about your car!"
"My car? What's wrong with it? It's registered and paid up!"
"Can't say, sir. But how long have you had your car? Who sold it to you? Did you change anything about it? How much did you pay for it?"
I am fully capable of speaking English, but his words left me stuttering. I told him the name of the person I'd bought it from about three months ago. "I haven't changed anything, for sure, and paid $2,500 in cash for it! Why, what's going on? Is something wrong with the car?"
"Can't tell you. Passports, please."
We didn't have our passports, just European Union IDs, which we handed over. After returning from checking our IDs, he asked again: "Who sold it? Did you change anything at all on it?" The entire time, another officer kept a flashlight pointed at us.
The interrogating officer's next statement pushed us into full-blown panic: "Sir, I can't find you in the system. Where and when did you enter the country?"
I had paid Homeland Security $130 to be registered as a legal alien. "I just flew into Chicago in July; I left my finger prints and bio scans, and submitted 1,000 forms to the DHS prior to arriving. I don't understand how you cannot find me in your system!"
Again, the same questions about the car: How long did I have it? Who sold it to me? Did I modify it in any way? He got the same answers from me and returned to his car for more ID checks.
After that, he returned. "OK, I found your friend; she came through Chicago a week ago, so she's fine, but why I cannot find you in the system, I don't know. Sometimes the system is down. Now, please get out of the car; I want to show you something."
By now, this had gone on for about 40 minutes. We got out, not at all prepared for what came next: First, we realized we were not dealing with the Highway Patrol, but the Border Patrol. Second, I realized there were three BP cars and 10 officers present.
Our interrogator took his flashlight to the rear fender of our car, shining it at something. Curious, I got down on my knees for a peek. The officer asked me: "Do you know what those are?" He pointed to small, shiny brackets affixed to the springs under the car; those brackets seemed to prevent the car's body from riding low if the trunk were loaded.
"I have no idea."
"Those are brackets smugglers put on the car so it looks like normal when the trunk is full of people. You are driving a smugglers' car."
I felt like a horse had kicked me. I agreed to a search, and a German shepherd sniffed all over the car and barked a few times. I feared handcuffs were next.
The officer's final words: "The car is clean. I cannot find you in the system, but because your girlfriend was verified, you are free to go. You know, we're looking for the bad guys!"
The take-home message: Pay attention when buying a car from someone here in the desert Southwest.