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Michel Jalbert

Held for 35 days for no reason

This case has been all over the news. It appears that Michel Jalbert has a petty criminal record which prevented him from being a poster child for pushing all the way for restitution after his illegal confinement by those terrorist-hunting Americans. It's too bad. This would have been a good case to take all the way. The plea bargain should make us all a little nervous.

Michel Jalbert

Judge accepts deal in Quebec border case

A Quebec man jailed last year for driving into the United States to buy gasoline - with a shotgun in his trunk - has pleaded guilty to charges in a U.S. court Monday to avoid more jail time.

Earlier this month, lawyers for Michel Jalbert struck a plea bargain with prosecutors that would allow Mr. Jalbert to plead guilty to one charge of being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm and to be sentenced to time already served.

The charge carries with it a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Under the terms of the deal, other charges faced by Mr. Jalbert would be dropped.

Mr. Jalbert was nabbed by U.S. border guards as he was heading to a family hunting trip and had his shotgun in his truck.

The 33-year-old forestry worker spent 35 days in jail last fall after he bought gas at a border station at the edge of his hometown of Pohénégamook, Quebec He and his wife, Chantale Chouinard, have fretted over the prospect of a trial and years in jail.

On Monday morning, Judge George Singal of the U.S. District Court in Bangor, Me., accepted a plea bargain and sentenced Mr. Jalbert to 35 days in jail - time he had already served. Michel Jalbert was told he was free to return home.

However, Mr. Jalbert may now be barred from entering the United States for life. His lawyer, Jon Haddow, said the judge's sentence means that his client is now considered a felon in the United States.

He told reporters this will likely mean his client faces a lifetime ban from entering the United States.

The plea-bargain ends Mr. Jalbert's strange clash with rough justice at the U.S. border.

Residents of Pohénégamook have filled up their gas tanks for years at a station about 15 metres inside U.S. territory, often without reporting to U.S. Customs.

However, Mr. Jalbert's lawyer said his client was a victim of new, tighter security regulations after Sept. 11.

On Monday, the judge said the case should send a message to all citizens that the old days of quick, cross-border trips are over.

"This may cause inconvenience for people who live along the borders but it's simply unfortunate that the citizens of this country and Canada must endure that fact," Judge Singal said.


Lawyers reach deal in dispute over gas purchase

OTTAWA - Lawyers for the Quebecker jailed last year for driving about 15 metres into U.S. territory to buy gas have struck a plea-bargain with prosecutors, allowing Michel Jalbert to avoid more jail time by pleading guilty.

The news was a relief to Mr. Jalbert, who languished in jail for 35 days last fall after he bought gas at a border station at the edge of his hometown of Pohénégamook, Que. He and his wife, Chantale Chouinard, have fretted over the prospect of a trial and years in jail while they awaited their second daughter, due yesterday.

Mr. Jalbert will appear in U.S. District Court on March 10, where a federal judge is expected to accept the plea agreement. He is then expected to be deported to Canada - and may never be allowed back into the United States.

"I'm really happy that they'll leave me alone," Mr. Jalbert said in a telephone interview. "Until it's all over, I'm not sure, but it should go all right."

The plea-bargain ends Mr. Jalbert's strange clash with rough justice at the U.S. border.

The edge of Pohénégamook is cut off by the border with Maine, although the four French-speaking locals who live on the U.S. side must go into Canada to do almost anything, including walking to the nearest street.

Residents of Pohénégamook have filled up their gas tanks for years at a station about 15 metres inside U.S. territory, often without reporting to U.S. Customs.

The gas station is just beside the Canadian customs post, and while its pumps are in the United States, its driveway is in Canada and leads to a Canadian road. The U.S. customs station is one kilometre out of the town, next to a Canadian lumber mill; those who do report to U.S. Customs first must drive back through Canadian territory before they get to the gas station.

There is nothing behind the gas station but the woods of northern Maine.

But on Oct. 11, hours after the customs post had closed, a U.S. border patrol officer arrested Mr. Jalbert as he filled up. When authorities discovered his hunting rifle in his truck and a minor criminal record for breaking windows when he was 19, he was suddenly facing three federal felony charges in the United States.

"I was doing that for 15 years, and everyone did it, too, in the exact same way," Mr. Jalbert said yesterday, still expressing disbelief at his arrest. "It doesn't take 35 days to discover I'm not a terrorist. A fine, or something, okay, but prison is perhaps too much."

Still, according to Mr. Jalbert's lawyer, Jon Haddow, U.S. federal prosecutors refused to plea-bargain while he was jailed last fall until a federal magistrate granted his release on bail. Even then, officials with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service would not grant his release; U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated his officials intervened on the day he was let go.

Mr. Haddow said federal prosecutors were ready to deal now, as long as Mr. Jalbert would plead guilty to the felony charge of being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm. He said he could not say why they were more willing now.

"It's hard to say if it was the publicity, or the intervention of Colin Powell, or the prospect of going to trial," Mr. Haddow said yesterday.

Paula Silsby, the U.S. Attorney for Maine, said only that both sides were willing to "dispose" of the case, and there was no political intervention. Even now, she said, she sees no difference between Mr. Jalbert's case and anyone else who enters the United States illegally.

Michel Jalbert may never be able to return to the United States, however, and for him that means he must be careful where he walks at the edge of his hometown.

But he said, at the moment, he doesn't have much desire to spend time in the United States.


US judge's order sets Canadian driver's trial

BANGOR -- A federal judge has denied a motion to dismiss charges against a Canadian man charged with illegally entering the United States to buy gas in the northern Maine outpost of Estcourt.

The ruling by US District Chief Judge George Singal means Michel Jalbert, 32, will go to trial for illegal entry, being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm, and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

Singal's order was filed Tuesday. The trial is scheduled to begin March 11.

Jalbert's arrest Oct. 11, 2002, in the driveway of Ouelett's Gaz Bar, just inside the Maine border, touched off a storm of international controversy that even drew Secretary of State Colin Powell into the fray. But the furor has done little to aid Jalbert, who spent 35 days in a Maine jail before his release in November.

Jalbert's attorney sought to have the charges dismissed, saying the US Customs Service excused gas station customers from having to report to the customs office about a half-mile away.

Scores of residents from Pohenegamook, the neighboring Quebec town, visit the station each day because the gas is cheaper than on the Canadian side of the border.

Jon Haddow, the Bangor lawyer who represents Jalbert, accused the government of ''outrageous conduct'' by granting permission to go to the gas station and then arresting Jalbert for doing just that.

Singal ruled that he lacked a factual record to address the ''outrageous conduct'' claim, but left open Haddow's right to refile the motion at trial.

Michel Jalbert faces a firearms charge because he was carrying a shotgun in his vehicle at the time of his arrest. He said he had the shotgun because he had hoped to hunt some partridge that day.

The third charge stems from Jalbert's 1990 conviction in Canada for breaking and entering and possession of stolen goods.