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Cahill voices anger after customs detains his family over fruit

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill and his family, returning from an Italian vacation last month, were pulled aside and detained by customs agents at Logan International Airport after one of his four daughters was caught with contraband - three peaches.

"We were treated like criminals," said Cahill, whose teenage daughter had stowed the fruit in her carry-on to eat during the nine-hour flight. "They made us feel like we were guilty of smuggling."

Cahill was returning to Logan Airport on Aug. 14 from his in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary celebration in the town of Torre dei Passeri when he completed a customs form for his family. Unaware that his daughter had the fruit in her luggage, he did not declare them.

A US Customs and Border Protection agent discovered the peaches after pulling the Cahills out of line for what the treasurer said he believed was a random search.

"I was standing back while there was an exchange between my wife and daughters," said Cahill. "At first it seemed routine, but then it became nonroutine. It was something so seemingly minor, yet the tone from the customs agent was seemingly major. We were in shock. They made us sit and took our passports. It felt like we were being interrogated and found guilty without any process, no explanation, no rundown of our rights.

"They just said, 'You have to pay a $300 fine.' I was threatened by another agent that if I didn't pay the fine, I would have to spend the night in jail," he said. Cahill said he was not told that if he paid the fine, he would waive any right to appeal.

Cahill, who did not tell the agents that he was an elected official, had been reluctant to speak publicly about the encounter until yesterday because he "didn't want to make it a big issue that the state treasurer and his family were treated inappropriately."

He changed his mind after recounting his story to a group of lawmakers and travel and tourism industry representatives last week. At the meeting called by US Representative William Delahunt, attendees recounted difficulties encountered by overseas travelers entering the United States since increased airport security measures were put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Cahill said.

"I do respect the difficult role that Homeland Security has," Cahill said. "It's a balancing act. Unfortunately in my case, the balance was not struck very well. As a citizen who cares about security, I think that the time needs to be spent better and maybe on less serious issues than peaches.

"As a government official in the airport where the [Sept. 11] attacks started, I felt like this is how far we've come in six years? It doesn't feel we've come that far. I had no record. There was no reason to tie me and my family up for an hour and treat us the way they treated us. My family was upset. My daughter was very upset," Cahill said.

A spokesman for Logan Airport referred questions to US Customs and Border Protection, whose spokesman could not be reached for comment. Officials at the US Department of Homeland Security also did not return calls seeking comment.

Cahill said he is "working through the channels" of the US government to "try to get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn't happen again. That's the most important thing - that no one else has to go through what we went through unnecessarily."

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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