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Smuggling and Customs Violations

American history is filled with stories of smugglers and bootleggers bringing illegal goods into the country. Today, it's quite common to hear of counterfeit goods, drugs, and other contraband making their way into the country. But why did this practice begin in the first place?

As British colonies, the future American states produced raw materials such as lumber, wool, iron, cotton, tobacco, rice, and indigo. Britain used such raw goods to produce manufactured products that were sold in European markets. The British also sold these items back to the colonies. This system of mercantilism benefitted the British at the expense of the colonies. 

As a result, smuggling goods and the circumvention of customs laws became common practice. British customs officials were susceptible to bribes by colonial shippers. Illegal payments meant that ships from the French, Spanish, and Dutch loaded with illegal goods could enter the colonies. The growth of the black market to avoid British taxes and regulations likely helped plant seeds for the American Revolution.

Laws against smuggling and similar practices still exist today. Below you'll find an in-depth look at smuggling and customs violations in the modern era. We'll look at the categories of laws prohibiting such activity and real examples of these crimes, and you'll learn 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 regulations and laws place controls on the entry of goods into or out of the country. The stated purpose of U.S. customs laws is to protect the economy, residents, jobs, and the environment. Regulations on international trade can prevent threats posed by unfair competition, unsafe products, and foreign pests, plants, and diseases. 

Controlling the flow of goods into and out of the country also permits the government to secure import taxes, known as duties."Likewise, there may be export fees to send your goods overseas.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) oversees the import/export process in the U.S. Its work falls under the Department of Homeland Security. It imposes customs duties on goods coming into the country. A duty is basically a tariff or tax. The customs duty is typically levied at the time of the importation. It may vary based on the country of origin and the product involved. 

The CBP also acts as an administrator for other administrative agencies, like the FDA or the EPA, that need to know the content and other details of items coming into and going out of the country.

Categories of Customs Violations

Customs laws focused on crime can be found in Title 18, Chapter 27, of the United States Code, Section 541 through 555. Those in violation of these laws may face both criminal and civil penalties. Customs violations often come with provisions for forfeiture. That means that the CBP can seize illegal items. If the transporter violated the law, they will not get the items back. The U.S. Code provides several distinct criminal offenses, including smuggling and false statements about imports and exports.

False claims 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 into the U.S. from outside the country. You can violate the law by misrepresenting the value of the goods, omitting them from the declaration form completely, or making false representations. Criminal acts of this nature may bring fines and up to 2 years in prison. 

You may take any amount of currency with you when traveling to or from the U.S. If the value of the currency amounts to $10,000 or more, you must report it. Failure to do so can lead to civil and criminal penalties. It can also result in a forfeiture of the currency itself via 31 U.S.C. Section 5316.

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. Such conduct may also bring federal charges of money laundering or bulk cash smuggling.

Import violations involve attempts to conceal the nature of the imports, their origin, value, or nature to evade import duties. This may involve repackaging or remarking merchandise to avoid duties. Individuals can violate importation duties when 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. 

CBP officials have the authority to conduct inspections and searches at and near the border. They can inspect persons, luggage, cargo, and merchandise. They can also inspect and search vehicles at the border, often to detect illegal drugs and contraband. They share authority with the U.S. Coast Guard to inspect and search vessels in ports of entry and waterways.

Smuggling violations carry some of the harshest criminal penalties. Federal law at 18 U.S.C. Section 545 prohibits anyone from knowingly and willingly smuggling merchandise into the U.S. with intent to defraud the U.S. government. 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.

Violation of section 545 can bring fines and/or up to 20 years in federal prison.

Examples of Smuggling

Although most people associate smuggling with illegal drugs, defendants in drug cases often face serious charges of drug trafficking or manufacture. If they bring drugs on their person or in a vehicle, border patrol will seize them. More often, federal law enforcement may use other laws to take down a drug ring. 

Likewise, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will search for evidence of human smuggling at the border. They will bring charges of human trafficking to hold offenders accountable for the illegal transportation of foreign laborers and sex workers into the U.S.

Smuggling and customs violations under 18 U.S.C. Section 545 more often deal with counterfeit goods and other illegal items. For example, 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 the court sentenced him to three years in prison, ordered him to pay $115,000 in fines, and made him forfeit more than 1,300 stolen artifacts.

Smuggling cases may involve products that harm the environment or the food sector. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) convicted members of a pesticide smuggling operation out of Southern California. Ring leaders paid individuals up to $100 per box to bring liters of pesticides over the U.S.-Mexico border. If questioned, they were to tell customs authorities the bottles contained dog shampoo. 

The demand for the pesticides came from the need to battle mites that infect honeybee colonies in the U.S. However, the concentrations in the products posed a danger to humans and the bees as they were more than three times the potency of licensed pesticides. Key players received prison time and had to pay to dispose of the illegal products.

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 accused of trying to bring an exotic animal into the country or importing dangerous and illegal street drugs, seek legal advice. An attorney can explain the law and help you to prepare a defense. Consider talking with an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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