What If I Pee Across the Canadian Border?

Max’s step-dad grew up in a northern Minnesota town along the shore of Lake of the Woods, about ten miles south of the Canadian border. After returning from a trip over the summer, Max and his step-dad and I started talking about what it was like “in the early days,” meaning before 9/11, when you could basically ride your bicycle across the border without anyone caring.

Whenever Canada comes up (and it comes up remarkably often in our household), it’s predictable to get questions from Max about crimes that straddle an international border. For example, what if you illegally shot a bear in Canada while standing in the USA? What if you threw trash into the US from Canada? Then Max asked “what would happen if I peed into Canada?” Would it be a crime? Would it be an international event?

It can be charged as a crime, at least in Minnesota and in Manitoba, the Canadian province just north of the town of Warroad, Minnesota. It probably would not be an international event, unless perhaps you are trying to make an interesting point (as, for example, this funny political statement about unnecessary car engine idling, otherwise known as “pissing on the planet”). The likelihood of being hauled before the International Criminal Court at The Hague—well, no. Just no. I can definitively say that public urination is not within the ICC’s list of prosecutable cross-border crimes.

State Laws on Public Urination

Like a number of states, Minnesota does not have a specific public urination law, though some cities (like Minneapolis) have ordinances that prohibit peeing in public. And some states, without a specific public urination statute, have struggled to convict a person for the specific act of peeing in public. California, for instance, had no public urination statute for years and instead tried to use litter laws that prohibited “dumping, littering, or the release of injurious or nauseous substances in places of public assembly,” prompting one judge in a search and seizure case to exclaim:

Apparently recognizing that in a case of public urination it is unlikely that an officer would attempt to seize either the instrumentality used to commit the crime or the fruits thereof . . . the Attorney General urges that any identifying documents on the person of the arrestee can nevertheless be seized and searched as “other evidence … which will aid in the apprehension or conviction of the criminal.”

In Minnesota, if police officers felt the urge, they will probably use two criminal statutes to charge you with a crime: disorderly conduct or indecent exposure. But I have to pause there and come back in a bit, because there’s an issue that puzzles me, to wit: who has jurisdiction over crimes actually committed across the US-Canada border? So, a little background.

The Border Vista

The United States/Canada international border is described by some as the “longest, straightest, possibly boringest border in the world.” It runs 5,525 miles, separating Alaska from the Yukon and the mainland US states from various Canadian provinces. It’s drawn roughly along the 49th parallel and through water, woods, mountains, and sometimes through private property and buildings. It is overseen and coordinated by the International Border Commission, two officials who are each appointed by their respective countries. As just one part of its border duties, the IBC creates and maintains a “border vista,” a roughly twenty foot swath of cleared land running thousands of miles, some of it marked with stone or other monuments and signs.

I wrote the IBC for a bit of clarification. I was pleasantly surprised to get a response from Kyle K. Hipsley, the acting US commissioner himself. He provided a little bit more detail about the border vista:

East of the Great Lakes most of the boundary “vista” is on private property, although we regulate what can be done inside the vista the land owner owns up to the line. West of the Great Lakes and in Alaska there is a 60 foot strip of land that is set aside under presidential proclamation for the boundary. Although we only maintain 10 feet on the U.S. side of the boundary the IBC is the custodian of this 60 foot strip of land which is public property subject to U.S. laws. All that being said the line itself determines jurisdiction.

Where’s the Crime?

First, I doubt my son or I have the urethral power to stand on the edge of the US-Canadian border vista and pee 10-11 feet across to Manitoba. So, we’d have to enter the border vista, walk up to the US-Canadian line, and pee across (or vice versa if we wanted to make a different statement). Or, I guess, we could stop in the middle of an international border bridge at the very border (which we actually happened to do this summer), get out of the car and take an international whiz while standing on the bridge. Either way, the crime is probably different depending on where you pee, how you pee, and if anyone sees you pee. I can explain.

In Minnesota, if you expose yourself (e.g., while peeing), you could be charged with indecent exposure, a misdemeanor:

A person who commits any of the following acts in any public place, or in any place where others are present, is guilty of a misdemeanor:
(1) willfully and lewdly exposes the person’s body, or the private parts thereof;
(2) procures another to expose private parts; or
(3) engages in any open or gross lewdness or lascivious behavior, or any public indecency other than behavior specified in this subdivision.

It gets kicked up to a gross misdemeanor if you are in the presence of someone under the age of 16 and up to a felony if you’ve done it before and have been convicted before, I guess as a serial public urinator.

In any event, depending on the state and the circumstances, you may be flirting, shockingly enough, with a sex crime that, according to two Human Rights Watch reports (here and here), will require you or your delinquent kid to register upon conviction as a sex offender. Yikes, go figure.

For the most part, Canada’s disorderly conduct criminal statute covers public urination:

(1) Everyone who wilfully does an indecent act in a public place in the presence of one or more persons, or in any place with intent to insult or offend any person,
(a) is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than two years; or
(b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and is liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months.

So, peeing into Canada and being seen by a group of Canadians, who thereby express shock and offense by your act? Probably disorderly conduct. Peeing into Minnesota from Canada while a group of stupified Minnesotans look on? Probably indecent exposure.

Maybe we’ll simply stay out of the border vista, avoid stopping in the middle of an international bridge to pee, and look for a Biff, rest stop, or some other suitable restroom. Or just turn our backs and relieve ourselves into our own country, with no one hopefully looking on.

About Gregory D. Luce

Gregory Luce is the editor of Bitter Lawyer and a co-owner of Lawyerist Media, LLC. He still manages to handle a few pro bono cases and to provide ridiculous legal advice to his kids.