WASHINGTON - In these days of shock-and-awe travel, nobody can be sure whether a casual trip to Buffalo will end up in Syria - or as an all-expenses-paid tour of Guantanamo Bay.
For a quartet of Wilfrid Laurier University students from Kitchener-Waterloo, a two-day visit to a peace workshop in Washington, D.C., turned into a week-long criminal case, with their car as chief suspect.
"We haven't been charged with anything, but they won't tell us why they want to keep our car," said 23-year-old Lenna Titizian, who borrowed her father's compact Dodge to drive to Washington on Sunday with friends Adam Lewis, Kendra Foord and Jamie Adams.
Their troubles began when they entered Westminster Church in southwest Washington, where environmental and anti-war activists from the No War No Warming coalition were holding a panel discussion on peaceful protest.
"The day went smoothly, until we heard a ruckus in the back of the church and saw flashing lights," said Lewis, a 19-year-old political science student.
In a bizarre coincidence, the police were arresting people outside the church: an unrelated group of activists had allegedly robbed a Whole Foods store and made off with some items, which they took for the homeless. They were quickly charged and released, but police went on with their investigation.
"Two vehicles were captured on camera," said Lewis. "One had Ontario plates. The police were taking the car because they thought it was connected."
The students had left their passports and other documents in the car "for safety." But police refused to hand them over before taking it away, so the group was stranded in Washington. Although not arrested or charged with any wrongdoing, they couldn't come home.
"Luckily a generous Washington couple saw me weeping in the church, and took us into their home," said Titizian, a Laurier graduate who plans to return for a master's degree.
By week's end, police had returned the documents but kept the computer and electronic gadgets locked in the car. Carless, the students were spinning their wheels.
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The Canadian embassy said it could not interfere with the "criminal investigation" on the car.
The car seizure has baffled Titizian and her friends, as well as lawyers who have helped with her plight. Some speculate it may be a fishing expedition to identify organizers of Washington protests, like one that resulted in the arrest of about 60 demonstrators this week.
"If the people who committed the crime were already released, why do they want my car?" asked Titizian.
But, said Ron Harris, deputy general counsel of the Metropolitan Police in Washington, "if the vehicle is part of a crime it's evidence. If it isn't, it will be returned to the owner."
The prime suspect - a grey 2003 Dodge SX2.0 - is far more modest than the lurid red Christine of horror movie fame, which went on a murderous rampage. But to the Washington police, it apparently shares a suspicious past.
As they obtained a warrant to seize and search the car and its contents, it could be in for a long stretch of detention without bail.
"The situation raises serious questions about the safeguard of property and the justification of searches and seizures," said Fritz Mulhauser, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Titizian and her friends weren't given a reason the warrant. But once the search is over, they should be able to read the affidavit.
In the meantime, the car isn't talking.
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