By Rigid Woo
I’ve lived in Taiwan for over a decade. Like many people, I planned on living here for 1 year before moving on. I found that I loved it here. I’ve come to consider Taiwan as my home. I am a passionate teacher and love my work.
Also, I have respect for Taiwanese people and culture. I have understanding when there is a culture clash.
I was in class at 11:30 am. We were reviewing for a science exam for that afternoon. My supervisor called me out of class. She was very worried and concerned. She said the police were at the school and they had a warrant for me. I was terrified. I have never been arrested or charged with any crime. My supervisor escorted me to the school’s front office. Inside were 4 plain clothes police officers, and a few more supervisors and Taiwanese employees. I was surrounded. My vice principal asked me if I had ordered cannabis in the mail. I replied ‘no’.
They went on to try their best to explain the warrant. It stated that a package containing 3.5 grams of cannabis had been mailed with my name and address from overseas. The police were to search my person, home, computer, and phone. If they found any evidence of drug use, they would also be allowed to apply drug screening.
After this happened I was really angry about them involving my school to such an extent. First, I have an APRC, so was not dependent on my school for residency. Also, guilty or not guilty, it would inevitably affect my reputation. They came to my school to arrest me and make sure my school knew. They shared all the information they had with them. This was a highly effective form of intimidation.
I was in shock. Within 10 minutes I was in an unmarked minivan with 4 plain clothes police officers. To my knowledge, only one of them spoke English. I was not handcuffed at any time. They were also polite to me.
In the van, the officer asked me questions. I answered them. At one point, he asked casually “just between us, off the record” if I used cannabis. I responded that I didn’t think any of this was “off the record” and no.
When we arrived at my home, 4 more plain clothes officers were waiting for us. They escorted me upstairs. Before entering my home, they began video recording starting with me stating my name and then opening my door. They proceeded to enter my place and search thoroughly. They recorded the search carefully. During this time, I turned on my computer and logged in. Then an officer began searching my computer and email. This lasted maybe a half hour. My home was small, well-kept, and uncluttered so it wasn’t a long time. The police found nothing.
Then we were taken to the police station. I’ve been to many places in the world, and this felt like one of the dirtiest places I’ve been. I just sat to the side and waited for a while. Most of this experience was waiting. Which gives you much time to think about what is happening or could happen. I should be finished with a nice lunch and preparing to proctor an exam. Instead I am in a police station facing felony charges. I was so nervous. At one point they asked if I was hungry. I said no, but they bought a lunch box for me anyway. During this waiting, the school sent an employee to the station to sit with me. My phone was taken away at one point and its contents copied onto a hard drive. An officer was looking through it for any evidence. Shortly after, they did a “huddle.” I had been fretting for hours. Then several officers suddenly surrounded me with the camera again. They held out a large envelope to me. At this point I was in such a state of anxiety. I would not take the package from the officer. I told him I didn’t want to touch it. Then, they asked me questions such as is it yours, do you know this person, etc. I answered with an emphatic no to these questions.
Then they left me to sit again. The police officer told me that next I would have to take a urine test for drugs. By this time, even though I was frightened, I began to think. First, I knew I was out of my element. I knew this was a very serious situation. I also knew that even though the police had mostly been polite, they did not have my best interests at heart.
I borrowed a phone from my coworker and began contacting people I knew. Someone had advice on an attorney. I called them and relayed the situation. They would send someone.
I had been in police custody for almost 4 hours. Two young attorneys arrived, and we requested a room to have a discussion. I wanted to sit down and ask the attorneys questions. What is the charge exactly? What is the punishment? What should I do?
We went into an interrogation room. Two officers came in with us. I requested to speak to my attorneys alone. They refused. Then followed a 10 minute heated argument between the attorneys and police. I was now becoming angry. As far as I knew, I had the right to speak with attorneys in private and also I wanted to leave. When I stated this, more shouting ensued. I remember at one point, other police officers were rotating into the room to shout at me and the attorneys.
My attorneys advised me to be quiet and wait. They called their boss, he was on the way. When he arrived there was a short 5 minute argument. Then, my attorney told me we were leaving immediately.
Later, I learned I could have left hours before. They had no legal right to hold me and force me to take a urine screen. The police were angry to not have their way.
It took some more arguing to get my phone returned. I left immediately for the attorneys’ office. By this time I was exhausted. The attorneys were great. I felt relieved to finally be able to get information about what was happening.
They informed me I was facing charges for drug trafficking. The amount and kind of narcotic did not matter. 3.5 grams of cannabis was a felony charge. If found guilty the sentencing required a minimum 4 year sentence, a fine, and expulsion from the country after completing the sentence.
They stated the police would get a warrant the next day for a urine screen. This was a real problem for me. I would test positive for cannabis. This was an additional minimum 3 year jail time, and fine. I was honest with my attorneys about this.
My attorneys informed me of the severeness of these charges. We talked about what I would be facing. Possibly years before a costly trial is over, during which time I may or may not be allowed out on bail. This was devastating.
I was also given information from the attorney. I was informed that most likely, the police would not have blocked my passport from leaving the country. It was not a suggestion, but rather just information.
Exhausted, I finally arrived home around 6. I was a wreck. I asked some friends for help. We booked a flight for later that night to leave the country. I packed the things I would need and left. It was an awful trip and experience at the airport. I did not know if I would be arrested or allowed to leave.
I made it through. I was crying during takeoff. I eventually made my way to my family. I resigned from my school. I was devastated. I had left so many things I cared about behind. Lots of things went on during this time.
I was away for 2 years. Shortly after I had arrived back, my grandfather died. A few months after that, my mother was in a horrible automobile accident. She required several surgeries and over 4 months living in a rehabilitation facility followed by home care. Fortunately, I was able to help her through this. In addition, I lost a very close aunt to cancer. I was grateful to be able to be present during these times. I would have felt overwhelming guilt had I not been there.
I tried to settle down and start anew. Everyone told me I did the correct thing by leaving. And under no circumstances should I go back. I did not feel like it was the correct thing. I was angry and ashamed. I felt cowardly. I was angry about the devastation to my life this had caused.
After a year and a half I began my comeback. I was able to get help from friends. I got more attorneys. I worked and saved money. (I spent roughly 200,000ntd fighting this). I was fortunate because it could have been much higher. I prepared myself mentally.
Most of my friends and family disagreed with my decision. However, I was focused. Over a 6 month period, I gathered all the documents and evidence asked for. FBI background check and financial statement. Death certificates and medical records to explain why it took so long to come back to Taiwan. And on, and on.
When I returned, my attorneys had arranged for a captain from the special investigations to meet me at the airport. He was wonderful! I was treated with such kindness and respect. I did have to go through the process of clearing customs and being processed through police custody (fingerprints, pictures, urine screen, etc)
I sat down for a recorded statement in which I denied the charges. I can’t stress enough the difference between that and my first experience. We went to the courthouse after. I stood before a stern judge to enter my plea. I was allowed to post a 100,000 ntd bail.
I had been hopeful that the charges would be dropped due to so little evidence. However, the state decided to carry forward with the charges. Then began the long and tedious trial process. I had court dates 4 times. An English interpreter was provided. I dressed in a suit and came as best prepared as possible.
The state's evidence consisted of a package sent in my name to my address and the fact that I left the country. The result of the search of my person and place was irrelevant, as I could have had narcotics but the police just didn’t find it. They stated that the address was written in a specific way with a postal code not frequently used.
Also, I had visited the country from which the package came several times, although not from the area the package came from. Thus, we had to prove when and where I went there.
We put together a case. We provided evidence of the many gatherings I’ve had at my home. The ease it would be to get my address. I established the need for me to see my family due to illness. I knew that I could not leave the country while a trial was in process. I had to prove the length of time I lived at my home. I was fortunate that my former supervisor came to testify on my behalf.
The police had not done a thorough job. They didn’t finish their report. They had stated that I refused to answer questions. This was not true. Later in a discussion with my attorneys, they let me know that the police don’t always follow regulations. They can be heavy-handed. They told me I was fortunate to be a foreigner because they had treated me better than a Taiwanese. I asked to make formal complaints against them, but was advised not to.
These court sessions were over a period of a year. During this time was an uncomfortable limbo. Do I sign a contract for an apartment to live in or with a school? Lots of time to think about the outcome. I was facing a minimum of 4 years in prison.
I worked and waited. There came a time when the verdict was near. I knew the decision could be appealed by either side. I would appeal if found guilty, which would require another lengthy and costly trial. As well as the uncertainty if I would be allowed out on bail while awaiting trial.
If I was found not guilty, I needed to be prepared for the prosecution to appeal which would result in another lengthy and costly trial.
After a little over a year after returning, the verdict was in. Not Guilty! I felt relief, but I had to temper that. The prosecution had 30 days to appeal. Fortunately they did not. I was legally cleared. Freedom…