American history is filled with stories of smugglers and bootleggers bringing goods into the country illegally and without the official consent of the government. But why did this practice begin in the first place? Think about the way the colonies were set up under the British. The colonies produced raw materials such as lumber, wool, iron, cotton, tobacco, rice, and indigo. Britain used the raw goods to produce manufactured goods that were sold in European markets and back to the colonies.
This system of mercantilism ultimately contributed to the Revolutionary War, as smuggling and the circumvention of existing customs laws became common practice. British customs officials often were bribed by colonial shippers. The bribes allowed ships from the French, Spanish, and Dutch loaded with illegal goods to enter the Colonies. That was in the 17th and 18th centuries, yet laws against these practices still exist today.
Below you'll find a more in-depth look at smuggling and customs violations in the modern era, including the categories of laws prohibiting such activity, real examples of these crimes, and where to go for legal representation if you're charged with any version of these federal crimes against the government.
Smuggling and Customs Violations Explained
Customs laws are in place to control the importing of goods and import taxes, known as "duties," into the country. The stated purpose of U.S. customs laws is to protect the economy, residents, jobs, and the environment (such as stopping foreign pests, plants, or diseases from entering) by controlling the flow of goods into and out of the country.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Protection agency (CBP) imposes customs duties on goods coming into the country at a rate of about 3%, but can be much higher depending on the country of origin. The customs duty is typically levied at the time of the importation.
Categories of Customs Violations
Customs laws can be found in Title 18, Chapter 27, of the U.S. Code, Section 541 through Section 555. Those in violation of these laws, can be slapped with both criminal and civil penalties. In addition to smuggling, there are three other main categories of crimes that fall under customs violations:
- False Declarations;
- Exporting violations; and
- Importing violations.
False declarations can happen when a person returns to the U.S. or enters for the first time. They must declare the value of any goods they are bringing in from overseas. You can violate the law by misrepresenting the value of the goods, omitting them from the declaration form completely, or making false representations. Also, if you fail to disclose leaving or entering the country with $10,000 worth of currency, you can be criminally charged.
Exporting violations occur when a person fails to obtain an export license for certain goods before shipping the materials out of the country. This also may occur when a person or company exports regulated goods to a restricted group or country such as sending money to a known terrorist group.
Import violations involve attempts to conceal the nature of the imports, their origin, value, or nature in order to evade import duties. Individuals can violate importation duties when, for example, they bring in foreign-made textiles, cigarettes, and food products without paying customs duties by claiming that the goods are not entering the U.S. for consumption.
Smuggling: A Closer Look
In order to be found guilty of this crime, the federal prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- The defendant knowingly smuggled merchandise into the United States without declaring the merchandise for invoicing;
- The defendant knew that the merchandise was of a type that should have been declared; and
- The defendant acted willfully with intent to defraud the United States.
The penalty for this crime includes up to 20 years in a federal prison, a fine, or both.
Example of Smuggling
A New Mexico man was convicted in 2017 for multiple violations of smuggling laws when the government proved that he was part of a conspiracy to smuggle ancient artifacts, including pottery and bronze weapons stolen from burial sites and coins from Pakistan, into the United States for sale in Santa Fe. The defendant would receive the shipment at a U.S. airport and then submit various false and fraudulent documents to CBP.
The defendant was found guilty by a federal jury and was sentenced to three years in prison, ordered to pay $115,000 in fines, and had to forfeit more than 1,300 stolen artifacts.
Charged with Smuggling or Other Customs Violations? Contact an Attorney
Sneaking certain items into or out of the country can be a serious violation of federal law. Whether you're being accused of trying to bring an exotic animal into the country or illegally importing dangerous street drugs, you'll want an expert on your side to explain the law and prepare your defense. Reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney near you to find out how they can help.