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Criminal charges dropped in manga Customs case


Ryan Matheson, the American who was arrested, detained, abused, and charged with child pornography after a single image was found on his computer on the Canadian border, has had criminal charges dropped after making a plea bargain to plead guilty to a non-criminal procedural charge. It’s a big victory for the CBLDF and civil rights. The CBR story above has more details:

In a personal statement, Matheson said he decided to accept the plea bargain because, although he was sure he had committed no crime, the risks of a trial were too high. “If I had gone to full trial, the original criminal charges against me posed the risk of a minimum mandatory sentence of one year plus having to register on a sex offender registry in Canada and potentially even in the United States,” he said. “Therefore, in the end I decided that the final plea deal was acceptable because the criminal charges would be withdrawn completely.”

Matheson, a software engineer, anime and manga fan and aspiring artist, was 25 and traveling to a foreign country for the first time when he flew to Ottawa, Canada, to visit a friend in April 2010. A Border Service Officer interviewed him on arrival at the Ottawa International Airport and sent him to another officer for a secondary inspection. “I knew I didn’t have anything to hide, so I willingly gave them my password to log in to my computer,” he said. “Through an unusual search that lasted over four hours, they found anime illustrations from art books and other fully-clothed drawings of fictional anime and manga characters on my computer. Unfortunately, Canadian customs officers consider any comic or anime-style drawing suspicious.”

The Comics Reporter has an interview with the CBLDF’s Charles Brownstein that has more, including just how overzealous the border guards were:

CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: My understanding is that the breakthrough was a change in prosecutor shortly before the scheduled February trial date, coupled with the fact that Michael Edelson and his team developed an astonishingly strong defense on a wide range of constitutional grounds that would have been likely to prevail in court. I think that the facts were very bad for the prosecution. Ryan was outrageously mistreated in the course of his ordeal: his search was not conducted in a constitutionally valid fashion; he was denied access to counsel; he was denied basic necessities like food and blankets; he was denied access to the American embassy; he was taunted by police who actually told him he could be raped.

Although we often joke here at the Beat about the affability of Canada as a nation, this is a pretty disturbing story.

The CBLDF’s full statement below:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund are pleased to announce that the Crown has withdrawn all criminal charges in R. v. Matheson, the case previously described as the “Brandon X case,” which involved a comic book reader who faced criminal charges in Canada relating to comic books on his computer.  The defendant, Ryan Matheson, a 27-year-old comic book reader, amateur artist, and computer programmer has been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
The total legal costs of this case exceeded $75,000.  After taking the case last summer, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund contributed $20,000 to the defense, and the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund contributed $11,000.  The CBLDF also participated in shaping the defense, including recruiting expert testimony for the trial.  The organization is currently seeking funds to help pay off the $45,000 debt Matheson incurred as a result of his case, and to create new tools to prevent future cases.  To make a contribution to these important efforts, please visit www.cbldf.org.
After a search of his laptop in 2010, Matheson was wrongfully accused of possessing and importing child pornography because of constitutionally protected comic book images on that device.  He was subjected to abusive treatment by police and a disruption in his life that included a two-year period during which he was unable to use computers or the internet outside of his job, severely limiting opportunities to advance his employment and education. Mr. Matheson has agreed to plead to a non-criminal code regulatory offense under the Customs Act of Canada.  As a result of the agreement, Matheson will not stand trial.  The defense of this case was waged by Michael Edelson and Solomon Friedman of Edelson Clifford D’Angelo LLP.  The full Notices of Application detailing Edelson’s defense and outlining the outrageous and unlawful treatment Matheson endured are available on www.cbldf.org or by clicking here: Charter Notice and Jan 15 12 – Matheson Charter Notice.
Speaking out for the first time, Matheson says, “I’m glad to finally put this awful ordeal behind me. Ever since the beginning I knew I had committed no crime, so I was never willing to accept a plea to any criminal charge. The entire legal process is very traumatizing, and the overzealous bail conditions imposed on me were very difficult to endure. Although my defense was extremely strong, all trials are inherently risky and I value my life too much to risk a potential minimum mandatory sentence. I am very grateful for the spectacular work Michael Edelson and his team put into my case, and to all the generous people who supported me and contributed to my defense. I was able to stand up to the very last day and fight for something I believe in.”  Matheson has also written a personal statement about his case that appears on www.cbldf.org.
Edelson, who managed the defense says, “The client, and my firm, are grateful to the members of CBLDF and CLLDF for their invaluable financial and moral support with respect to this case, which was of such critical importance to the client, given the very positive outcome we were able to achieve in an area of the law where, here in Canada, the Crown very rarely exercises its discretion to withdraw charges of this nature. The client will have no criminal record, his name will not appear on the Sex Offender Registry in Canada, or elsewhere.”
The Notices of Application available on CBLDF.org detail for the first time the extreme mistreatment Mr. Matheson suffered at the hands of Canadian authorities.  He had his right to counsel and Vienna Convention consular rights violated when he was detained without being properly informed of the reason for detention.  He was not granted access to counsel, or to the American Embassy.  The Application asserts that Customs officers acted as agents for police and conducted an illegal search of his property.  Matheson was also the subject of cruel and unusual punishment, including being denied food and blankets.  Matheson was even told by police transporting him to prison that “if you get raped in here, it doesn’t count!”  The defense detailed these and other abuses and outlined that the comics at issue are constitutionally protected in the United States, the client’s home country. The comics possess artistic merit and are widely available in Canada, Japan and the United States.
Although the outcome of this case is ultimately positive, comic book readers should be aware that there are still dangers for traveling with comics in Canada.  Edelson says, “Aside from the very positive outcome to this story, your members should be cautioned concerning the search and seizure regime here in Canada exercised by the Canadian Border Services Agency. Moreover, they should also be aware that although anime and manga is legal in many areas of the United States and Japan, etc., to possess and utilize, the Canadian authorities may take a different view if this material is found on any laptops or mobile devices when you enter the country. Many of the issues that arise in similar circumstances are thoroughly addressed in our comprehensive Notice of Application.” 
Edelson’s firm has created a new advisory on traveling with comics and manga in Canada that is available here:CBLDF – Legal Memorandum – Canada Issues. The CBLDF’s previous advisory, which addresses the issues of traveling with comics through international borders is located here: CBLDF Advisory – Comic Book Art at Intl Borders
“This is a good outcome, and we’re glad we were able to contribute to it,” CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein said.  “While one always wants to be able to change the rules in court, those opportunities are rare, and in this case, the defense’s extraordinary effort in persuading the Crown to drop criminal charges is a very positive conclusion.  We are now focusing our efforts on raising money to help pay off Ryan’s legal debt.  We are also working with Ryan and experts in the manga community to create educational tools to help prevent others from needing to go through anything like this themselves.  We hope that people will donate to the CBLDF to help us achieve these goals quickly.”
Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund board member Leonard Wong said, “We’re glad this is over for Ryan and want to thank him and his attorneys for their willingness to stand up to our government in this matter.  We’re also pleased that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was able to assist the defense financially and substantively, and are creating new tools to help prevent these kinds of cases in the future.  Unfortunately, this could easily happen again, so we continue our stride to establish the CLLDF as a more active ongoing concern.  Our immediate focus will now shift towards raising funds and preparing for any future attacks on comics in Canada.”
Please visit www.cbldf.org today to make a donation in support of paying off Ryan’s legal defense and creating new tools to combat abuses like this from happening in the future. You can also support this effort by becoming a member of the CBLDF. Every contribution helps us get Ryan back on his feet, and furthers our efforts to protect the First Amendment rights of comics and manga.

  1. Good for him, but this is far from a victory. It’s a prime example of why obscenity cases will never truly set worthwhile precedents in court. The threat of losing a trial and showing up on a sex-offender registry is a major threat that will almost guarantee a plea bargain from anyone even if they did nothing wrong.

    Nobody should have to be afraid of being in possession a damn illustration!!! No matter what it depicts. Until that happens, we cannot make any claims to freedom of speech.

    I’m glad this guy doesn’t have to face what could have happened, but I just don’t see this as a cause to celebrate. 75 grand for a plea bargain when he should have been set free and sued them for being “outrageously mistreated?” Not a win at all.

  2. Matheson’s personal account of his abduction by the Canadian government is worth reading:


    The paperwork filed in his defense mentions the filename of the image that the Customs agent flagged as possible “child pornography”. I found it online. It is not a drawing of a a child. It is a series of cartoon drawings – in Japanese “chibi” style – of a couple having sex. As is typical of chibi figures, it’s impossible to assign a meaningful age to them. For a mental picture, imagine the old “Love is…” couple getting busy.

    Or, if you’re ready to risk your immortal soul and be corrupted by it, this is the image that presented such a danger to society that a man had to be arrested, mistreated, his basic freedoms curtailed, and forced to spend huge amounts of time and money to defend himself:


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