Sunday, July 08, 2018

Duty Drawback, TFTEA, and Administrative Delay

Tobacos de Wilson, Inc., et al. v. United States, et al. is an effort to force Customs to apply amended drawback law after the statutory deadline but before Treasury has completed the regulatory process. It is pretty in the weeds but is important to drawback claimants. In the bigger picture, it is a good example of using the Courts to ensure that administrative agencies are meeting congressional mandates for action.

The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (known awkwardly as "TFTEA," which is pronounced "tiff-TEE-ah" in my office) made three important changes to the duty drawback law. Those changes, intended to make drawback less cumbersome, include: a change to the standard for substitution manufacturing drawback; a change to the test for commercial interchangeability for substitution unused merchandise drawback; and an expansion of the period for filing drawback claims.

Under the law, Treasury (remember, drawback is all about the money) had two years to pass regulations implementing TFTEA. That two-year period expired on February 24, 2018 without implementing regulations. Apparently, a draft Notice of Proposed Rule Making is been sent to Office of Management of Budget for review. Under the statute, starting February 24, 2018, drawback claimants can elect to proceed under the pre-amendment version or under the TFTEA.

On February 5, 2018, Customs and Border Protection published a Guidance Document (the link goes to Version 3)stating that it would not apply the TFTEA until the pending regulations are fully promulgated. That guidance also included restrictions on drawback not included in the TFTEA. Among those restrictions is the denial of accelerated disposition for TFTEA claims pending the new regulations.

The first question, as is always the case, is whether the Court of International Trade had jurisdiction to hear this challenge to CBP's Guidance Document. The Administrative Procedure Act, 5 USC 702, gives individuals a means to challenge a final agency action. But, it is not a jurisdictional statute. Some other statute must grant the court hearing the case the authority to do so. In this case, jurisdiction is based on 28 USC 1581(i)(4), which gives the Court of International Trade exclusive jurisdiction over "civil actions commenced against the United States, its agencies, or its officers, that arise out of any law of the United States providing for administration and enforcement with respect to, among other things import revenue collection. According to the Court, the Guidance Document, which is an operative statement of CBP policy and details how drawback claims are to be processed, is a final agency action subject to review. Consequently, this case is properly before the CIT.

Thus, under the APA, the question to be resolved is whether the policy stated in the Guidance Document is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law or is without observance of procedure required by law.

Plaintiffs' first and second counts relate the allegation that the Guidance Document illegally limits a claimant's rights to accelerated payment. Accelerated payment of drawback claims is a regulatory provision that does not depend on the drawback statute, either pre- or post-TFTEA. See 19 CFR 191.92. Under the Guidance Document, CBP would continue to grant accelerated payment for claims filed under the old law but would decline accelerated payment for claims filed under TFTEA. According to plaintiffs, this is inconsistent with the regulations, especially 19 CFR 191.0, which states generally that the regulations apply to all drawback claims. Plaintiffs' reading of that makes it applicable to TFTEA claims as well.

The Court of International Trade rejected that argument. According to the Court, TFTEA requires Treasury to determine the calculation methods to be applied to refunds. Those methods will be determined in the regulations. Thus, for claims filed under TFTEA, the law requires a determination as to methodology that has not yet occurred. The regulation, therefore, is inconsistent with the statute and is invalid when applied to a TFTEA claim.

Plaintiffs also challenged two limitations on TFTEA drawback claims: the "first-filed" and "mixed use" rules. The first-filed rule means that the first claim made relating to a line on an entry will dictate the type of drawback available to be applied to the remaining merchandise on the line. This can limit the drawback available to claimants if, for example, some of the merchandise was first claimed on the basis of direct identification. All subsequent claims for that entry line must also be based on the direct identification method. Under the mixed use rule, claimants must identify entry lines that are subject to both pre-TFTEA and TFTEA claims. Under the most recent Guidance Document, CBP will accept these claims, but not process them until the regulations are passed.

Because CBP will not be enforcing these rules until the regulations are in place, the Court found these claims to be moot.

Plaintiffs next argued that the deadline for implementing regulations was mandatory and that the government's failure to comply entitles Plaintiffs to relief. The Court agreed that the deadline in the statute s clear and mandatory. Plaintiffs and other claimants are being deprived of benefits Congress intended to be in place by now. This, according to the Court, is a violation of the law.

The question is what to do about that violation? The Court had already ruled that the plaintiffs do not have a right to accelerated payment under TFTEA. Consequently, it refused to order it. The Court also found that it was not yet necessary to order Treasury to complete the regulatory process by a date certain. Instead, the Court ordered that if the government did not complete the process by July 5, 2018, the Court would consider imposing a deadline. [Note, this opinion was issued on June 29, 2018.] On top of that, the Court noted its willingness, if necessary, to craft further relief to ensure that the benefits of TFTEA are not lost due to administrative delay.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Archaeological Pieces Under 9705 HTSUS

As of July 1, 2018, importers of archaeological pieces have to report their merchandise to U.S. Customs and Border Protection with new detail. That is because the U.S. has added a new statistical breakout for these items and two related statistical notes.

Prior to January of 2018, Heading 9705 provided, in its entirety:

Click Image for Better View

For people who trade in these items, those who study the legal and illegal trade in antiquities, and (presumably) enforcement agencies, lumping archaeological, historical, and ethnographic pieces together did not provide adequate detail about what is entering the country. As previously drafted, 9705.00.0070 covered items as diverse as a 1936 Bugatti race car and an Egyptian Stone Ushabti  from the 18th Dynasty.

Working on behalf of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield and with the support of several interested not-for-profit entities, we asked the 484(f) Committee to further divide this provision to separately identify, in particular, archaeological items.  The result is a new level of detail on the treatment of the items in Heading 9705 and new statistical notes to add clarity to the language. As a side benefit, there is now also a recognition that coins can, depending on age and how they were collected, constitute archeological pieces.

The new 9705 reads as follows:

Click Image for Better View

Note that the subheading for coins now includes the limitation "other than archaeological pieces." Beyond that, there are new breakouts at .75 for archaeological pieces and .80 for ethnographical pieces. Both breakouts reference statistical note 1, which reads:

For the purposes of statistical reporting number 9705.00.0075, "Archaeological pieces" are objects of cultural significance that are at least 250 years old and are of a kind normally discovered as a result of scientific excavation, clandestine or accidental digging or exploration on land or under water. For the purposes of statistical reporting number 9705.00.0080, "Ethnographic pieces", which may also be called "ethnological pieces" are objects that are the product of a tribal or nonindustrial society and are important to the cultural heritage of a people because of their distinctive characteristics, comparative rarity or their contribution to the knowledge of the origins, development or history of that people. See Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Informed Compliance Publication on "Works of Art, Collector's Pieces, Antiques, and Other Cultural Property".

To ensure that the reporting of archaeological pieces is not obscured in sets or collections imported as a whole, the tariff includes new statistical note 2, which reads:

For statistical reporting of merchandise provided for in subheading 9705.00.00, collections made up of articles of more than one type of cultural property, i.e., zoological, biological, paleontological, archaeological, anatomical, etc., shall be reported by their separate components in the appropriate statistical reference numbers, as if separately entered.
These new data present some important opportunities. To the extent importers are properly reporting the full tariff item and statistical suffix at the time of entry, Customs and Border Protection will have better data to focus on imports that might be subject to restrictions under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. That Convention is implemented in the U.S. as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act ("CCPIA"), 19 USC 2601-2613 and in customs regulations at 19 CFR 12.104-12.109. Under these laws and regulations, the U.S. can extend protection to archaeological and ethnological materials from States that have ratified the Convention and for which the United States has entered into a bilateral agreement.  There is also a mechanism to unilaterally extend emergency protection. Covered items cannot be imported to the United States without documentation showing that their exportation was not in violation of the laws of the originating State or that their importation was otherwise permitted under the CCPIA.

For products not properly declared as archaeological or ethnographic pieces using the correct statistical suffix, the failure to do so might expose the importer to penalties under the customs laws. This is not new, but by separating archaeological and ethnographic pieces from historical pieces, an importer will not be able to assert that it item is a historical piece to disguise its true nature while reporting the correct statistical suffix covering historical pieces as well as archaeological and ethnographic pieces. The importer will now have to pick one and get it right.

While it is true that errors in statistical reporting do not usually result in a customs penalty, this circumstance is different in that the correct reporting goes to admissibility of the merchandise. For items subject to protection under the CCPIA--including those from Iraq and Syria that are protected under special legislation--admissibility depends on the documentation showing legal exportation. The new reporting requirements should help to flag those items and give Customs an additional point of enforcement action.

Why does this matter? Mainly because regardless of the source or nature of the item, the United States, as a party to the Convention has made a policy decision that it wants to help countries preserve their cultural heritage by working to reduce illicit trade in these items. On top of that, there is strong evidence indicating that the illegal sale of looted artifacts has been a source of operating income for terrorist organizations and that this has resulted in significant destruction to priceless sites. See, for example here and here. We are hopeful that these and possibly future changes to the HTSUS will provide Customs, researchers, and traders with better data from which to monitor legal and prevent illegal trade in cultural property.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Game of Thrones, the HTSUS Edition

Heading 9817 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States includes a subheading covering the following:

Articles specially designed or adapted for the use or benefit of the blind or other physically or mentally handicapped persons; parts and accessories (except parts and accessories of braces and artificial limb prosthetics) that are specially designed or adapted for use in the foregoing articles: 

The question presented to the U.S. Court of International Trade in Danze, Inc. v. United States is whether certain toilets and toilet tanks fall within this subheading and are, therefore, entitled to duty-free entry to the United States.

The basis for the plaintiff's argument is that the merchandise complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The toilets include the Orrington High-Efficiency One-Piece model shown here and the Cirtangular Two-Piece. The tank involved is the Orrington tank. Note that none of these products have any obvious adaptations for the disabled such as grab bars. Nevertheless, the toilets meet the ADA requirements for accessibility. According to Danze literature, the ergonomics of the toilets make sitting and standing more comfortable for users.

Tariff item 9817.00.96 implements the Nairobi Protocol to the Florence Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials. Part of the intent of the protocol is to provide “duty free treatment to articles for the use or benefit of the physically or mentally handicapped persons, in addition to articles for the blind."

There are two question that relate to the application of this provision to imported goods. First, is the item specially designed in some way to accommodate the user? Second, is that accommodation related to a physical or mental handicap? According to the legal notes to Chapter 98, "'physically or mentally handicapped persons’ includes any person suffering from a permanent or chronic physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, or working.”  U.S. Note 4(a), Subchapter XVII, Chapter 98, HTSUS. 

"Specially designed" is not defined in the HTSUS. However, Courts have previously construed this term and the legislative history provides guidance. In the end, the Court held that  “articles specially designed for handicapped persons must be made with the specific purpose and intent to be used by or benefit handicapped persons rather than the general public.” Moreover, "[a]ny adaptation or modification to an article to render it for use or benefit by handicapped persons must be significant."

There is no debate that these products comply with the ADA and associated federal guidelines. The question is whether that is enough to meet the classification requirement. According to the Government in this case, mere compliance with the ADA is not sufficient to show a significant adaption.

According to the Court, the ergonomic design of these toilets (and the associated tank) is primarily the seat height, which makes them comfortable. This toilet height has become a popular option for general consumers, not just (or predominantly) the disabled. This is also true of the flush controls and the elongated bowl design.

Without more evidence of specific and significant adaptation to disabled users, Danze was unable to show that these toilets were specially designed or adapted for the use or benefit of the disabled. Rather, it appears that they are consumer-oriented products that also satisfy the requirements of the ADA. Accordingly, the Court of International granted summary judgment in favor of the United States.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Let's Talk About Bugs

The United States Department of Agriculture has the important obligation to protect American farms, orchards, forests, parks and backyards against the damage that can be caused by plant diseases and pests that enter the United States through our ports of entry. This is derived from the Plant Protection Act, 7 USC 7701. For commercial importers, the most common pest vector is the humble wooden pallet, which can house and transport a number of pests including horntails (AKA wood wasps).

The problem with these critters and many like them is that they bore into trees to lay eggs. That can result in bugs emerging from processed lumber or even from completed structures.

When pests are discovered by Agriculture Inspectors at port of entry, the USDA will issue an Emergency Action Notice. Generally, the EAN requires that the offending shipment be turned around and exported from the U.S. 7 CFR 319.40-3. To prevent that from happening, the USDA has adopted a system under which wood packing material may be imported if there is adequate evidence of it having been treated to prevent infestation. The required treatment must be consistent with the international ISPM-15 standard and the material must be marked accordingly.

There has been a lot of recent enforcement action on this of late. In September, CBP issued a notice stating that "to motivate" compliance, it was alerting the trade that CBP may issue penalties for single violations. This was a change from the prior practice of not issuing a penalty until there had been five violations. CBP further noted that there would be no yearly reset for calculating repeat violations. See CSMS #17-000612 (Sep. 26, 2017).

One company that ran afoul of the wood packing material ("WPM") rules is Andritz Sundwig GmbH. Andritz imported $39.5 million in machinery for the production of steel and aluminum in two shipments. For each shipment, it received an Emergency Action Notice demanding the exportation of the cargo. Rather than comply with the EAN, Andritz filed a protest challenging the exclusion and requested accelerated disposition to get the case before the U.S. Court of International Trade. The resulting case is Andritz Sundwig GmbH v. United States.

Andrtiz asked the Court to review the denial of the protest and the demand for immediate exportation. Andritz also asked for declaratory judgment that the EANs are invalid. Andrtiz wanted the Court to order CBP to permit the merchandise to be separated from the WPM and the WPM fumigated.

In response, the United States moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the Court of International Trade lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.

In most cases, a denied protest is subject to review at the CIT. That is usually non-controversial. However, a protest of the exclusion of merchandise is slightly different than the typical protest over classification, value or rate of duty. Exclusion can only be protested when it is "under any provision of the customs laws." 19 USC 1514(a)(4).

The authority for the EAN, according to the CIT, is not the "customs laws." Rather, it is the Plant Protection Act. The EAN states that the Department of Agriculture is the supervisory agency involved. As a result, the CIT held the denied protest was not properly before it. Moreover, the case was not within the Court's residual jurisdiction, which also relates generally to tariffs, duties, quantitative restrictions (other than for public health and safety) and the administration thereof.  The case belongs in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, to which the case was transferred.

One thing to note is that the CBP administrative message notes that a penalty for an EAN would be issued pursuant to section 1592 or section 1595a of Title 19 of the U.S. Code. Title 19, as you likely know, is "Customs Duties," and penalty cases (at least under 1592) are routinely before the CIT. This makes me think that the CIT has not seen the last case involving an APHIS penalty.

Also, as a matter of grammar, I am not following the government's lead and stating that goods subject to an EAN must be re-exported. To me, that implies that they merchandise was previously exported from the U.S. I think the better usage is that the goods need to be exported, for the first time. Anyone have a reason why I am wrong about that?

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Last Stand for Active Frontier

The saga of the Active Frontier penalty case has been going on since 2011. The CIT has just issued a default judgment against the company, ending this phase of the litigation.

For background, start with this post.

The important take-away from this case is how the Court set the penalty amount. The alleged material false statement in this case is the country of origin. Under the circumstances, this is a non-revenue violation and the maximum penalty is 20% of the value of the goods. 19 USC 1592(c)(3). The United States sought the maximum allowable penalty, which was about $80,000.

Despite the defendant not showing up to refute the claims or assert any mitigating factors, the Court did not say it was bound to assess the maximum penalty. On the contrary, it noted that the penalty is to be set de novo by the Court on the basis of the available information. Here, the Court noted that the true bills of lading clearly showed the true origin of the merchandise. Defendant, exercising even minimal effort could have determined and reported the correct country of origin. On that fact, the Court found it appropriate to assess the maximum penalty for a negligent violation.

OMG, a Dispatch from the Benelux

Antwerp is a lovely city in which to spend a few days talking about trade law, European privacy regulations, and eating everything in sight. There were also more than a few Belgian beers involved.

I am now on a train from Antwerp to Amsterdam. On the way, I figured I would read OMG, Inc. v. United States. "Why?," you might reasonably ask. [Is that remotely the correct way to punctuate that sentence?] Well, it is what I do for you.

Despite the caption, OMG is not about internet-age acronyms. Nor is it about products intended for teenage girls in poorly written CW dramas. [Note: I don't actually know that teenage girls on CW dramas ever say "OMG," but I feel like they might.] Rather, it is about the scope of the antidumping duty order on steel nails from Vietnam. The scope of that order states, in part:

The merchandise covered by the Orders is certain steel nails having a nominal shaft length not exceeding 12 inches.  Certain steel nails include, but are not limited to, nails made from round wire and nails that are cut from flat-rolled steel.  Certain steel nails may consist of a one piece construction or be constructed of two or more pieces.  Certain steel nails may be produced from any type of steel, and may have any type of surface finish, head type, shank, point type and shaft diameter.  Finishes include, but are not limited to, coating in vinyl, zinc (galvanized, including but not limited to electroplating or hot dipping one or more times), phosphate, cement, and paint.

OMG imported zinc anchors into the United States. The Court described the zinc anchors as follows:

Each Zinc Anchor consists of two components: (1) a zinc alloy body, which comprises approximately 62% of the total weight of the complete Zinc Anchor; and (2) a zinc plated steel pin, which comprises approximately 38% of the Zinc Anchor’s total weight.  The zinc body and zinc plated pin are produced in Vietnam, and then assembled together in Vietnam, resulting in a one-piece article of commerce: a Zinc Anchor. While it may be physically possible to separate the zinc body from the steel pin after the Zinc Anchor has been created, disassembly is not commercially realistic, in light of the Zinc Anchor’s cost and use, as well as the likelihood that the components will be damaged and rendered useless by the disassembly process.
The controversy here surrounds the zinc-plated steel pin. The pin is arguably a nail, though it seems unlikely that the pin will be separated from the remainder of the anchor. The value of the pin is about 17% of the value of the anchor.  Based on the OMG website, I am pretty certain this is what we are talking about:

This item is used to fasten things to masonry walls. The assembly is inserted into a pre-drilled hole. The pin is then struck with a hammer. The force of the hit, moves the pin deeper into the shaft, which then widens to accommodate the pin. This works as a fastener because the body expands in the hole, not because the nail bites into wood or any other material.

In 2017, the Department of Commerce held that this item is unambiguously within the scope of the relevant order. OMG challenged that decision in the Court of International. On review of a scope determination, the CIT must uphold the decision unless it is unsupported by substantial evidence or otherwise not in accordance with law.

The Court started its analysis with the language of the order. The critical question is what constitutes a nail. The Court concluded that "nail" unambiguously refers to a slim, usually pointed fastener to be inserted by impact. The Court then noted that he pin, which is only part of this fastener, is not itself a fastener. It is initially inserted into a pre-drilled hole and, after hammering, does not grip the material into which it has been inserted. Instead, it expands the zinc body, which then grips the sides of the pre-drilled hole. Furthermore, industry practice is not to refer to these anchors or the pins as nails, although they may be called, for example, "drive nail anchors."

The Court of International Trade, therefore, held that the OMG anchors (and their steel pins) are not nails within the scope of the order. As a result, it remanded to scope determination to the Department of Commerce to complete a revised scope determination consistent with this decision. In other words, Commerce should come back with an order finding these anchors and pins to be outside the scope of the order.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Country of Origin for Dumping Orders

I have trying to get to this one, and now is the time. Bell Supply Co, LLC v. United States is an important decision from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The issue presented is whether, when making a scope determination, Commerce should apply the traditional substantial transformation test to determine the origin of the merchandise that was partially manufactured in a country subject to the order and partially manufactured outside that country. In this case, the question was whether unfinished oil country tubular goods initially fabricated in China and finished in Indonesia are within the scope of the order covering OCTG from China.

Bell purchased "green tubes" from China and sent them to Indonesia where they were heat treated and finished. In 2014, the Department of Commerce issued a scope ruling finding that the OCTG shipped from China as green tubes and then finished in third countries remain products of China for purposes of the application of the antidumping duty order. To get there, Commerce applied the substantial transformation test. Contrary to Customs and Border Protection rulings on similar facts, Commerce found that heat treating and finishing did not change the country of origin of the merchandise.

Bell challenged that decision in the Court of International Trade. There, it argued that the antidumping laws have a regulatory process designed to resolve exactly this kind of question. That process is a "circumvention" inquiry, which does not involve substantial transformation. 19 USC 1677j(b).

The Court of International Trade agreed. It held that the circumvention analysis is the specific standard for determining whether foreign producers are trying to evade an AD order by completing merchandise in a third country. The CIT remanded the matter to Commerce for the application of the circumvention analysis.

On remand, Commerce took a closer look at the language of the order, which is always a good thing. There, it noticed that the order covers unfinished OCTG from China. Commerce divined in that language guidance that unfinished OCTG exported from China is always unfinished OCTG, even when sent to Indonesia to become finished OCTG.

The Court of International disagreed again and remanded. On the second remand, Commerce found that finished OCTG imported from Indonesia were outside the scope of the order. First, it found no indication that the order covered unfinished OCTG from China finished in a third country. Second, it found that the operations in Indonesia did not constitute circumvention. The CIT sustained this conclusion.

Two questions were presented to the Court of Appeals. First, does the order cover unfinished OCTG from China that are finished in a third country? On this, the Federal Circuit held that absent language to the contrary, the order should be applied to merchandise at importation. In this case, the imported merchandise is not unfinished OCTG from China. It is finished OCTG. Thus, to the extent the order applies to unfinished OCTG from China, that does not describe the applicable merchandise.

The next question was whether the merchandise was finished OCTG from China. To decide that, the Court was asked to pick between substantial transformation and circumvention as the appropriate analysis. The Federal Circuit did not take that bait.

Rather than pick one means of analysis, the Federal Circuit instructed Commerce and the Court of International Trade to use both. Substantial Transformation should be used first to determine the country of origin of the imported article. Using that test, Commerce would seek to determine whether the subsequent processing results in an article of commerce with a new name, character or use. In doing so, Commerce can consider (1) the class or kind of merchandise; (2) the nature and sophistication of processing in the country of exportation; (3) the properties, essential components, and end-use of the product; (4) the cost of production compared to the value added; and (5) the level of investment.

If it turns out that the merchandise is not of the country subject to the order, the question remains whether it should be treated as within the scope of the order. That is the function of the circumvention test. Commerce can find the merchandise to be in scope if:

(1) “the process of assembly or completion in the foreign country . . . is minor or insignificant,” (2) the value added in the country subject to the AD and CVD order is a significant portion of the total value of the merchandise, and (3) “action is appropriate under this paragraph to prevent evasion of such order or finding.”  § 1677j(b)(1)(C)–(E).
If the merchandise is from a country not covered by the order but the further processing meets the circumvention test, then the goods remain in scope.

Based on this reasoning, we now know that origin for scope purposes is a two part test. First, use substantial transformation to determine whether subsequent processing changed the country of origin. If so, and assuming the second country is not covered by the order, determine whether the further processing is circumvention. If not, then the imported product is not subject to the order.

The Federal Circuit vacated the decision of the Court of International Trade and remanded.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

CBP Sued Over Currency Seizure Practice

[Note: Updated to properly identify the organization supporting the litigation.]

I often tell students and other lawyers that the great thing about my practice is the lack of human drama. In most cases, getting to the right result in a dispute with Customs and Border Protection is about knowing the law and making sure everyone applies it properly to the facts. Usually, no one cries and rarely is anyone subject to imprisonment.

But, that is not always the case. One thing we do in my office is help people with currency seizures. Just to be 100% clear on this: It is illegal to bring over $10,000 in or out of the country without declaring it to Customs. This is very useful information for law enforcement on a number of fronts. The money might be from illegal activity, it might be going to support terrorist organizations, it might be part of a money laundering scheme.

When entering the country, there is an obvious time and place to make this declaration. If you are using a paper declaration form, it is right there as 13: "I am (We are) carrying currency or monetary instruments over $10,000 U.S. or foreign equivalent. Yes. No." On the other hand, when leaving the country, no one asks that question. Many people do not know there is an obligation to report when leaving the country. Those who do may find it hard to find the actual CBP office where the declaration needs to be made and get there in close proximity to the time for a departing flight.

What you need is a FinCEN 105 form. According to the instructions, travelers "shall file FinCEN Form 105 at the time of entry into the United States or at the time of departure from the United States with the Customs officer in charge at any Customs port of entry or departure." If this is relevant to you, call the general number at the port you will be transiting and ask for the correct location to make the declaration. Then, ask yourself why you feel the need to carry a bundle of cash.

I have seen this process cause grief several times. In most cases, if the traveler can prove a legal source of the funds, he or she can secure the release of much of the seized funds. But, not always. If the evidence of lawful sources is unclear or if there are aggravating factors such as efforts to conceal the currency or lying to Customs, the funds or a portion of them may be forfeited.

For the average person, the requirements and then the civil asset forfeiture process can be difficult to navigate. And, honestly, the Customs people who are the front line on this issue are not always as clear and respectful as one would hope.

Another problem is that CBP will not release the seized currency unless the traveler signs an agreement stating that it will not take any legal action against CBP. This is called a hold harmless agreement. According to CBP practice, if the traveler fails to sign the hold harmless agreement, CBP will start administrative forfeiture procedures. Translated to English, that means CBP will use the money as leverage to get itself out of any potential legal jeopardy.

The problem is that the seizure may have actually violated the rights of the traveler. Signing the hold harmless agreements means the traveler gives up the ability to challenge the seizure or seek damages for an unlawful seizure. That means, for example, waiving arguments that the seizure was an unconstitutional taking, violated the fourth amendment's protection against unlawful seizure (but see this discussion), or was otherwise unlawful. Moreover, it means that if CBP delays or otherwise fails to return the money in a timely manner, the traveler gives up his or her first amendment right to petition the government for redress of that claim.

This is the issue in a recently filed class action law suit challenging the requirement for a hold harmless agreement. Thanks to Clif Burns'  Export Law Blog for the tip.

The case is brought by the Institute for Justice. According to its website, "IJ litigates to limit the size and scope of government power and to ensure that all Americans have the right to control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society." Here is the IJ description of the case.

The underlying seizure involved a passenger heading to Nigeria who failed to disclose that she was carrying a little over $41,000. The passenger was a nurse who had saved much of the money to open a clinic in Nigeria. The remainder was from family sources and was to be delivered to her family in Nigeria. Not that is matters, but she was born in Nigeria and became a U.S. citizen in 1994.

Customs seized the currency and gave her a Civil Asset Forfeiture election form on which she could tell CBP whether she abandoned the currency, would pursue an administrative process, or wanted the case referred to the Office of the U.S. Attorney for judicial proceedings. She requested the latter.

The U.S. Attorney did not act on the case within the time permitted. The legal consequence of this is that the money is to be returned to the traveler promptly. See 18 USC 983(a)(3)(B). Rather than promptly returning the funds, CBP sent the hold harmless agreement and informed her that the money would be returned in full when she signed and submitted the agreement. Rather than do that, she brought this action:

to put CBP’s policy or practice to an end, to void any Hold Harmless Agreements signed by class members as a result of this policy or practice, to recover [the named plaintiff's] seized cash and any other seized property that has not been returned to class members because they did not sign Hold Harmless Agreements, and to stop CBP from targeting her for additional, intrusive screening without giving her an adequate opportunity to challenge her classification.
One of the interesting things that is likely to come out of this case is some data on how often these seizures happen. More important, how often does CBP make a seizure that the U.S. Attorney does not pursue?

This latter question is of practical importance to lawyers who deal with seizures. If it turns out that Assistant U.S. Attorneys more often than not do not pursue civil forfeitures, then maybe it does not pay to go through the CBP administrative forfeiture process. That process is slow and it is not always clear who is making or influencing the decision. There is also the perception (and it may just be the perception) that once the seizure train starts, it is very hard to stop before it arrives at a forfeiture. There are lots of reason for this including some degree of CBP deference to port-level enforcement.

The problems are often more acute when merchandise other than currency is seized. This is because it is not always easy to figure out what storage fees might be incurred. At some point, storage can be more expensive than the value of the merchandise and the expense of hiring counsel who is familiar with the process. Importers will often cut their losses by abandoning the merchandise rather than fight what might be an unjustified seizure.

This is a case to watch. The fact that it is being brought as a class action and supported by a non-governmental partisan entity means it is less likely to go away with a quiet settlement. This case is clearly addressed to a bigger picture idea. CBP could, of course, make it go away by issuing the refund and by changing its practice.

I also think there is an issue here for Congress. As long as the law requires the declaration, there should be a clear means of doing so. Congress should require that ports (including the domestic terminals of airports from which international flights leave) prominently post the requirement to report. Furthermore, the airlines, cruise lines, and other carriers should be required to distribute the forms. In the alternative, CBP and FinCEN (the Financial Crime Enforcement Network) should make it possible to file the form online some reasonable time before departure. Seriously, we don't need people getting caught up in this for no reason other than a lack of knowledge. Moreover, we do not need to have knowledgeable travelers wandering around airports trying to find a CBP office to submit the form.

That may not fit with the Institute for Justice goal of limited government, but that's not my goal here.