Friday, June 02, 2017

Interest: Equitable and Otherwise

The Federal Circuit has affirmed the Court of International Trade's holding that a surety is be liable for statutory interest but not for equitable interest when the importer defaults on the payment of antidumping duties. What follows is heavy on law, short on fact, and important to sureties and also importers. The case is United States v. American Home Assurance Company.

When importers fail to pay duties, taxes, and fees to the U.S. government, the government can collect interest on the unpaid portion. If the importer defaults, the surety becomes liable up to the value of the bond, unless the surety has a defense it can assert (and [spoiler] actually asserts it). In this case, the importer defaulted on the payment of antidumping duties and Customs tried to collect the duties and interest from the surety. There was no question about the liability for the duties. The questions presented has to do with interest.

There are multiple bases for the interest. First, interest is available to the United States under 19 U.S.C. 1505(d), which states:

If duties, fees, and interest determined to be due or refunded are not paid in full within the 30-day period specified in subsection (b), any unpaid balance shall be considered delinquent and bear interest by 30-day periods, at a rate determined by the Secretary, from the date of liquidation or reliquidation until the full balance is paid. No interest shall accrue during the 30-day period in which payment is actually made.

Separate from that, 19 U.S.C. 580 provides:

Upon all bonds, on which suits are brought for the recovery of duties, interest shall be allowed, at the rate of 6 per centum a year, from the time when said bonds became due.

On top of that, there is a thing called "equitable prejudgment interest," which is not statutory and derives from the judicially perceived need to compensate the United States for the loss of the use of money owed to it from the time the obligation to pay accrued until a judgment ordering payment is entered. This is a traditional rule established by judges, not by Congress.

Starting with equitable prejudgment interest, the United States appealed the Court of International Trade's decision to deny prejudgment equitable interest. The Federal Circuit held that equitable remedies are generally unavailable when there is an adequate statutory remedy. Section 580 would appear to provide a statutory remedy at the relatively high rate of 6%, making the government whole. There is, however, a wrinkle in this case in that the recent Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 expressly permits the government to recover both equitable prejudgment interest and statutory interest under section 580.

Nevertheless, equitable interest remains equitable in nature. The fact that Congress recognized that the Court of International Trade might award equitable interest does not mean the CIT must do so. Here, the Federal Circuit held that the CIT properly considered the equitable factors and concluded that the government was sufficient compensated by the statutory interest. Thus, the denial of additional equitable interest was proper.

Regarding the section 580 interest, the issue was not the availability of the remedy, which is clearly permitted under the statute. Rather, the surety argued that the CIT improperly permitted section 580 interest to be calculated on top of the section 1505(d) interest, putting interest on interest. The surety also argued that the relevant date for when interest should start to run is the date of denial of the protest rather than the first demand for payment.

On the first question, the Federal Circuit interpreted section 508 as clearly permitting interest on the entire bond amount, including 1505 interest. This would obligate the surety to pay interest on interest up to the amount of the bond. Regarding timing, the Court said section 508 is "clear and unambiguous" that the interest clock begins to run on the government's first formal demand.

The issue with respect to section 1505 interest was different. This is the legal question of whether the surety waived its right to content the interest by failing to challenge the denial of the protest and pay the duties and fees owed. The underlying rationale here is that decisions by Customs imposing charges or exactions on an importer are final and conclusive unless a protest of law suit contesting the liquidation is properly commenced. A surety is permitted to challenge a charge or exaction through an administrative protest. The fact that the interest is assessed after liquidation, does not change its nature as a protestable charge. Here, Customs denied the protest. At that point, is the defendant wanted to challenge the charge, it needed to file a summons in the Court of International Trade. For whatever reason, AHAC chose not to exercise that right and the decision became final and conclusive.

The latter point is very important. Where an importer or surety disagrees with Customs' efforts to collect duties, taxes, fees or interest, it must challenge the charge or exaction. Failing to protest will result in a final and conclusive assessment and will divest the importer or surety of the right to challenge it when sued in the CIT. I'm not happy with this result. It produces a waiver of defenses that many importers may not understand or appreciate. It is, however, the law.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On Toner Cartridges and Gray Market Imports

The United States Supreme Court has made it easier for discount retailers and "off-brand" Amazon resellers to import and sell refurbished goods, which is good news for bargain seekers.

First, a little background. Intellectual property rights like patents, trademarks, and copyrights are a deal that inventors, artists, and brand innovators make with the United States government. To promote the activity of these creative enterprises, the government grants a limited monopoly on the sale or exploitation of the work. That is why you can't make a copy of Star Wars Rogue One for 95 years, at which time it will fall into the public domain. Similarly, you can't start making your own version of the latest antibiotic because the company that put in the effort on research and development most likely owns the patent.

But, the scope of intellectual property rights is limited. With respect to patents, the law give the patent holder the "right to exclude others from  making, using, offering for sale, or selling" the invention. However, the law includes an exception that applies when the patentee sells the item. At that point, the product is the private individual property of the purchaser, who acquires all the rights of ownership, including the right to re-sell that item. This is why although you can resell your smartphone, you can't reproduce it. The same goes for music files and your trademarked running shoes. This is the rule of exhaustion.

In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark Int'l, Inc., the United States Supreme Court had to decide whether Lexmark could contractually prohibit purchasers of toner cartridges from reselling them. Lexmark did this to keep the cartridges out of the hands of companies like Impression Products, that refurbish, refill, and resell the cartridges at a discount and in direct competition with Lexmark.

To discourage this activity, Lexmark set up two sales channels. In one channel, customers paid "full price" for an unrestricted toner cartridge. In the other channel, called the "Return Program," Lexmark offered a 20% discount in exchange for adding a microchip to the cartridge. The chip contained software that prevent the reuse of the cartridge. In this channel, the purchaser contractually agreed not to transfer the cartridge to anyone other than back to Lexmark. While this was a clever strategy, third parties figured out how to circumvent the chip, allowing the resellers to continue in business.

Lexmark sued Impressions for patent infringement, arguing that it did not acquire the right to use or sell the cartridge. The idea here is not unreasonable. By taking part in the Return Program, the purchaser acquired limited rights and did not acquire the right to resell the cartridge. Under normal principles of commercial law, the purchaser cannot resell more rights than it acquired. Thus, the resale should violate the patent. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed and held in favor of Lexmark.

The Supreme Court, via Chief Justice Roberts, took a different path. The analysis starts with a quotation from 17th Century Lord Coke who said that "in an owner restricts the resale or use of an item after selling it, that restriction 'is voide, because . . . it is against Trade and Traffique, and bargaining and contracting betweene man and man." According to the Court, this is more than an old statement of common law. Rather, it is a principle that Congress has allowed to remain in the patent laws. Without the exhaustion principle, we would not have used car dealers because patentees for individual parts might sue the dealership for repairing and reselling the car and the parts it contains. Consequently, the express reservation of rights by the patentee to the original purchaser does not give the seller a continuing interest in that item.

One additional wrinkle in this case was that some of the cartridges were first sold outside the United States. Thus, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the foreign sale exhausted the U.S. patent rights. Lexmark argued that exhaustion as a result of a foreign sale would interfere with the U.S. market and prevent it from reaping the full value of its patent monopoly. The Supreme Court was unmoved. It said, "the Patent Act does not guarantee a particular price, much less the price from selling to American consumers. Instead, the right to exclude just ensures that the patentee receives one reward--of whatever amount the patentee deems to be 'satisfactory compensation' . . . --for every item that passes outside the scope of the patent monopoly." In other words, Lexmark got paid for those sales outside the U.S. at whatever price it deemed appropriate.

This is the second in a series of Supreme Court victories for parallel importers, also known as gray market importers. The first involved copyrights in textbooks. You can read that here. On the trademark front, the law is more complicated and depends on whether the merchandise is materially different than the products sold in the United States and on whether the trademark was applied outside the United States under the control or ownership of the U.S. trademark holder. If you are interested in that, start here.

Overall, this will permit the free market in the resale of patented goods. That is, as I said, good news for discount retailers and small-scale entrepreneurs. Patentees may adjust quickly, though. The decision makes it clear that this result only applies to sales. If the good is transferred subject to a license and ownership stays with the patentee, then the licensee has no right to resell the item. Expect future toner cartridges to come with license agreements.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Nairobi Protocol

The Court of International Trade has taken an interesting hard look at the Nairobi Protocol to the Florence Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Materials, which is popularly known as just the Nairobi Protocol. For purposes of Sigvaris, Inc. v. United States, the important point is that the Nairobi Protocol permits duty-free entry to the United States for articles that are specially designed or adapted for the use or benefit of the blind or other physically or mentally handicapped persons. The merchandise at issue here is graduated compression hosiery, arm-sleeves, and gauntlets.

The merchandise is all designed to apply a certain amount of pressure the extremities to help prevent the pooling of blood or other fluids as might happen in people with certain vascular and lymph conditions. The hosiery was designed for use by people with early stage chronic venous disease. The arm sleeves and gauntlets were for people with lymphedema, which causes sever swelling in the arms and is common among women who have undergone a mastectomy.

I’m going to jump to the conclusion here. Legally, a person is said to be handicapped if they have a chronic or permanent condition that results in substantial difficulty undertaking the basic activities of life such as caring for one’s self, walking, speaking, seeing, learning or working. People with early stage chronic vascular disease can experience leg fatigue, heaviness in the legs, varicose veins, and swelling. But, 25% of sufferers experience no symptoms and those that experience symptoms do not have trouble completing basic life tasks. Thus, people with early stage chronic vascular disease are not handicapped for purposes of the law. The hosiery, therefore, is not entitled to duty-free entry under the Nairobi Protocol.
The result is different for lymphedema, which is the inability to circulate lymph fluid. It can result in pain, swelling, and ulcerations. The swelling can be so severe that it results in the inability of the patient to use the affected arm. That is, according to the Court, a handicap. As a result, the compression arm sleeves and gauntlets qualify for duty-free entry under the Nairobi protocol.
That is all well and good. It makes perfect sense and is a good analysis for anyone thinking of using the Nairobi Protocol.

Despite that, I keep returning to a single line in the decision. That line states: “The Court does not give credible weight to the Government’s assertion that a person with one arm is able to perform life’s major activities without substantial limitation.”
I don’t think I have ever written a blog post in which I have criticized a lawyer’s argument. I am hesitant to do so here. But, I really want to explore how that argument got into the briefs. I understand the factually correct assertion that people with one arm are fully capable of independent living. Two things about that fact, though, bear consideration. First, much of that independence may be facilitated by apparatus that would qualify for duty-free entry under the Nairobi Protocol. This would be true, for example, of prosthetic limbs (but not parts thereof). The existence of other Nairobi Protocol material should not undercut the ability of these products to qualify for duty-free importation.

Assuming the argument was that a person with one arm can live and work independently without any mechanical or other technological support, one should wonder what evidence for this proposition the Government provided.
Let’s be 100% clear. I am in no way, shape, or form implying that people with a physical challenge cannot live independent lives without external support. I am also not saying that there are no examples of successful and independent one-armed people. There are. All I am saying, and all the Court said, is that it is not credible to argue that a person with one arm does not have a permanent condition that causes substantial difficulty completing basic life tasks. As I type this post in the cramped quarters of American Airlines coach class, I am struck by the difficulty presented by the prospect of typing with one hand. Dragging a suitcase through an airport with only one arm would make it impossible to simultaneously use a smart phone or carry a drink in the other hand, as is the ubiquitous condition in modern airports. Riding a bike can be done with one hand, but two is far easier and safer. While I think I could drive easily with one arm, I learned just yesterday that I can barely change a tire with two perfectly good arms when one lug bolt is 80% stripped (but that is another story). I am sure that monitoring my daily activities would lead to a long list of tasks that would be far more difficult without two good arms.

My question about this stands: how did it get into the brief? Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, was there some more subtle argument that was not well conveyed in the opinion? The opinion is thorough, so that does not seem to be the case. Was it the best argument available given the fact that lymphedema sometimes results in the inability to use an arm? If so, did the Department of Justice just go along with Customs and Border Protection’s views?
This matters because it goes to the nature of the relationship between lawyers and clients and to the public policy of the United States. Lawyers sometimes need to tell their clients that the best argument is not good enough, that the law does not support the reality the client wants. That can be a hard conversation, but hard conversations are part of the job. This is, I think, true for all lawyers but especially so for those lawyers who have the privilege of representing the United States government. While a private party, with a purely financial interest in securing a duty refund, might take a shot at a weak argument, the United States should be pursuing arguments that support the policy objectives of the United States while also preserving and protecting the revenue. It is hard to see how proffering the argument that having one good arm is not a handicap that merits the relatively minor impact on the American economy of duty-free access to the market is good public policy.

I would be very happy to be talked out this position. Is there some issue of international harmonization at stake? Is there some evidence of actual fraud? If you have insight into the reasoning, please drop a comment.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The "It's May? I Better Catch Up" Edition

There have not been many specifically customs-related cases from the courts of late. There have been plenty of rulings, in fact there have been rulings every week. I just have not had a chance to blog them. That is why things have been slow here. I have been tossing out the occasional tweet on agency actions and newsworthy developments. If you are not doing so already, please follow my Twitter feed @customslawblog or check it in the box on this page.

In the meantime, the Court of International Trade issued an opinion in United States v. International Trading Services. This decision is fairly uncomplicated decision the defendant in this penalty case failed to show up and defend itself. If you recall the earlier decision in this matter, you will understand why. The corporate client dissolved, leaving the lawyer, in his mind, without a client to represent. The lawyer tried to formally withdraw from the case but was rebuffed by the Court which held that the legal entity remained subject to suit under Florida law and, therefore, still needs a lawyer.

The underlying penalty here has to do with the incorrect classification of sugar on eight entries. The error resulted in just under $300 thousand in unpaid duties. The United States, on behalf of Customs and Border Protection, moved to collect the duties and a penalty of two times the unpaid amount. The defendant did not respond. As result, there was no real doubt that the Court would impose a penalty. The question was how much.

This is a good decision to read because it very logically walks through the process the Court of International Trade undertakes to assess a penalty. The first question is whether there was a material false statement or omission in connection with the entry of merchandise. A statement or omission is material if it would tend to alter Customs' appraisement or the importer's liability for duties. An incorrect classification that results in the underpayment of duty is material. Once the Court identifies a material false statement or omission, the defendant has the burden of proving that it did not result from negligence, gross negligence or fraud. As the defendants did not respond, the facts asserted in the motion are treated as true. That means there was no question as to liability.

Customs was seeking to recover about $691 thousand in penalties. But, setting the penalty amount is the responsibility of the judge, not Customs. The Court, therefore, walked through the 14 factors set out in a case called Complex Machine Works, which is worth a read for background. Here, Judge Barnett took the very helpful step of grouping those 14 factors into five broader categories. Those are:


  1. The defendant's character
  2. The seriousness of the offense
  3. The practical effect of the imposition of the penalty
  4. The economic benefit gained by the defendant
  5. Public policy concerns
The Court made a couple very important points. First and foremost is that the statutory maximum is not the default starting point for the penalty. The Court must consider the case on a clean plate. Starting at the maximum stacks the deck against the defendant by forcing it to argue down from the most severe penalty rather than having the Court consider the evidence to reach an appropriate result. The Court suggests starting at the midpoint and adjusting up or down as the evidence indicates.

Next, regarding cooperation, potential defendants should recognize that this is more than being pleasant through the course of the investigation. Customs' guidelines suggest mitigation where the defendant has exhibited "extraordinary cooperation beyond that expected from a person under investigation." Note that the CBP guidelines are not binding on the Court, although it did note their existence and apparently gave them some weight.

Related to this, the Court undercut somewhat the common argument that an importer had prior good behavior. This case involved eight separate entries. The Court characterizes this as defendant "serially misclassif[ying] entries accruing to Defendants a significant economic benefit." Does this mean that only the first entry would benefit from prior good behavior? My concern here is that in many cases the importer would not know about the error until several, possibly many, entries took place. Most errors are systematic in nature, not individual. My inclination would be to treat the error as the substantive decision rather than the entry and extend the benefit of good behavior regardless of the number of entries involved. Of course, that is only one of 14 factors, so the impact may be minimal.

Taking all of this into consideration, the Court found the maximum penalty to be appropriate. On top of that, the Court found it appropriate to grant prejudgment interest to the United States. 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ruling of the Week 2017.9: Chronically Late

Had I been thinking and available to do it, I would have posted this on April 20. Sorry I am late.

Grab some snacks, because we are about to discuss HQ H282163 (Apr. 13, 2017), which addresses whether a storage case with multiple adjustable compartments and a combination lock closure is prohibited merchandise.

Why would that be the case? It might help to know that the cases go by the name "Stashlogix" and come in three modes: Go-Stash, Eco-Stash and Pro-Stash. In addition to the combination lock, other Stashlogix features include a "stash journal" to "help keep track of all those crazy names," a UV-proof jar that can be re-labeled, odor absorbing packs, and a labeling marker. The products are designed "based on the principles of functionality, security, and discretion." The company advertises that the cases are used to store valuable private items such as fire-arms and addictive pharmaceuticals.

Here is a picture of the "Pro-Stash" case:


As you might have figured out, the question is whether the Stashlogix cases are drug paraphernalia under 21 USC 863. If so, they are prohibited merchandise.

The law defined drug paraphernalia as follows:
any equipment, product, or material of any kind which is primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance, possession of which is unlawful under this subchapter. It includes items primarily intended or designed for use in ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing marijuana . . . .

The statute contains many examples of drug paraphernalia including variations on pipes, miniature spoons, wired cigarette papers, and cocaine freebase kits. None of the exemplars in the statute are carrying or storage cases. So why is this a problem?

In the ruling, Customs and Border Protection noted that similar UV-proof jars are sold with labels clearly indicating their connection to marijuana and related products. One example is labeled, in part, "THC," which is a reference to "tetrahydrocannabinol," the principal active ingredient in weed. Another UV-proof jar is decorated with a marijuana leaf. 

Customs also noted that one reseller of the bags, a site called 420Science.com, advertises them with other "stash bags" from a company called "Dime Bag," which is clever. Also, a site called The Stoner Mom wrote a favorable review of the Stashlogix cases. According to the review, the cases are "perfect for today's stoner parent."

[As I sit here, it occurs to me that I have been surfing headshops and stoner sites for an hour. For the next six months the internet will probably be serving me adds for all sorts of stonerware.]

The question is whether any of that matters. The Stashlogix bags are discrete. They do not have the stereotypical stoner markings such as pot leaf designs, variations on the flag of Jamaica, and pictures of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.


Plus, jars are jars. They can be used for anything. If I were a chef, this might be a perfectly good way to protect, organize, transport and store [see what I did there?] spices and other valuable but non-perishable ingredients. Could it also be a travel bag? The jars might be useful for cosmetics and other preparations.

On the other hand, we should not blind ourselves to the reality of these bags. After all, they are called "Stashlogix" for a reason. According to Urban Dictionary, my favorite lexicographical resource, "stash" can refer to a "secret collection such as of drugs, pornography, etc." Also, according to Stoner Mom, the Stash Journals included with the bags are pre-printed with guides for rating the form and strain including categories for edible, oil, and powder, which (I am told) are forms in which weed and weed products can be consumed.

Getting back to the law, the statute also identifies several relevant factors. Those include:
  1. instructions, oral or written, provided with the item concerning its use;
  2. descriptive materials accompanying the item which explain or depict its use;
  3. national and local advertising concerning its use;
  4. the manner in which the item is displayed for sale;
  5. whether the owner, or anyone in control of the item, is a legitimate supplier of like or related items to the community, such as a licensed distributor or dealer of tobacco products;
  6. direct or circumstantial evidence of the ratio of sales of the item(s) to the total sales of the business enterprise;
  7. the existence and scope of legitimate uses of the item in the community; and
  8. expert testimony concerning its use.

Given all of this, the legal question is whether the Stashlogix cases are "primarily intended for use" and "designed for use" in, among other things, concealing a controlled substance. These are to be considered objectively and with respect to the likely use of the item, not a specific or individual use. My example of the well-organized chef, does not help if the most likely use is by the Stoner Mom and her stoner ilk.

So, what is the evidence of intended use and design?

First, the odor absorbing packets are described as providing "discretion." According to Customs and Border Protection, the intent and likely use of these packets is to conceal the odor of weed.

What about the UV-proof jars? Initially, I thought the intent was to preserve the contents by blocking UV light; like putting beer in an amber or green bottle. Apparently, my weed knowledge is limited. According to Customs, the specific type of glass involved here has the capacity to absorb UV light and also X-rays. That means the jars are designed and intended to help conceal, rather than preserve, the contents.

Marketing for the bags did not help. As mentioned, they are sold along side other bags that are more explicitly for the storage of pot by retailers expressly catering to stoners. It is hard to say whether that marketing should be imputed to Stashlogix. The fact that Stoner Mom and other bloggers find the bag useful is not really direct evidence of Stashlogix's design and intent.

On the other hand, Stashlogix does not seem to have gone out of its way to break that association. Stashlogix does not explicitly say it makes and imports stash bags for stoners. It says it provides locking cases for people looking to discretely store private items. Those private items could be prescription medications, weapons, or anything else. A post on its website includes this picture:

Note that the bag seems to contain a wallet, some sunscreen, and other items that do not look to be weed-related. A locking travel bag seems to be very useful at the waterpark or when forced into close quarters with people you don't know particularly well. It could also be very useful at home if someone required powerful medications that should not be left accessible to kids.

Customs did not buy any of that. It seems that the Stoner Mom and 420 Science made this case much harder than it might have been had Stashlogix been able to control its branding. The "Stash" part of its name does not help either. If I were giving the company legal advice, I would drop the stash journals too.

Stashlogix is now in a tough spot. State laws have greatly expanded the ability of Americans to legally access weed. But, it remains subject to federal law. The law prohibits the importation of drug paraphernalia. You might think that Stashlogix could start sourcing its product in the U.S. to avoid the customs issues. Unfortunately, the law also prohibits the use of interstate commerce to transport drug paraphernalia. I hope these guys have a factory in Colorado because if this ruling sticks, that might be the best place to make and also sell the bags.

One interesting aside is that this ruling does not involve customs duties. It goes to whether Stashlogix can do business as an importer. That might be irreparable harm. This might be one of the vary rare cases in which 28 USC 1581(h) would give the U.S. Court of International Trade jurisdiction to review a CBP ruling without the importer having to make an entry and protest the liquidation. 



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Surprise, Locking Pliers Are Not Wrenches

Tariff classification is based on the common and commercial meaning of the words used in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. One of the words that has been in dispute of late is "pliers" as applied to locking pliers. To picture the product at issue, think about Vise-Grips®, which is a registered trademark of Irwin Tools, the plaintiff in this case.

An older Court of International Trade case under the prior Tariff Schedule of the United States ruled that locking pliers are classified as wrenches. The reason for this was that people use locking pliers to lock onto a nut or bolt head and to turn, or wrench it. Because people use the tool to apply torque to the nut or bolt, the CIT ruled it is, despite its name, a wrench.

In the Irwin case, the CIT made two important decisions. First, it held that the prior TSUS decision did not bind it to a given result in this case. Second, the Court rejected the notion that the way people use the tool is relevant to this classification. Instead, the Court held that "wrench" is an eo nomine description of the item that does not suggest a particular use.

From that basis, the question became, what is the common and commercial meaning of a wrench. The Court concluded that is a tool with a single handle and a working head that is either an open slot or socket that has is shaped to exactly or closely fit a bolt head, nut, or similar fastener.

The locking pliers have two handles and a grasping head that is not specifically shaped to fit a fastener. That means it is not a wrench.

So, what is it? We don't know yet. This decision was on the government's motion for summary judgment. Irwin had not moved for a decision. Consequently, the case was not yet ripe for a final decision. Irwin will need to file a motion for summary judgment, reach a settlement, or use some other mechanism to get to a final judgment.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Ruling of the Week: 2017.8: To Drawback, And Beyond!

ORIGINALLY POSTED MARCH 22, 2017.
UPDATED APRIL 4, 2017.


The customs implications of space travel have always interested me. NASA has confirmed, at least according to this article, that astronauts have to make customs declarations on returning to earth. It is not exactly clear to me whether that would be the case for an orbital flight that departs the U.S. and returns to the U.S. without an intervening stop at the International Space Station or elsewhere. In fact, the Apollo 11 customs entry seems to have been something of a joke, even if it was "official."

The future is certainly going to be filled with questions about this sort of thing. What will happen, from a customs-perspective, the first time someone starts a commercial asteroid mining operation? Will we need to expand the notion of "country of origin."

The obvious analogy is to ships at sea. Today, the law is clear with respect to fish caught in international waters. According to the Court of International Trade, in a case called Koru North America v. U.S.:

On the high seas, the country of origin of fish is determined by the flag of the catching vessel. Procter & Gamble Mfg. v. United States, 60 Treas. Dec. 356, T.D. 45099 (1931), aff'd, 19 CCPA 415, C.A. D. 3488, cert. denied, 287 U.S. 629, 53 S.Ct. 82, 77 L.Ed. 546 (1932). In international law, a ship on the high seas is considered foreign territory, functionally, "a floating island of the country to which [it] belongs." Thompson v. Lucas, 252 U.S. 358, 361, 40 S.Ct. 353, 64 L.Ed. 612 (1920). See also Robbins (Inc.) v. United States, 47 Treas. Dec. 261, T.D. 40728 (1925) (fish are characterized by their first taking).
That means an asteroid or portion thereof brought to the earth by a U.S.-registered space vessel will have a U.S. country of origin.

The folks who negotiated NAFTA thought this through. According to Article 415 of the Agreement, "goods taken from outer space, provided they are obtained by a Party or a person of a Party and not processed in a non Party" are considered to be "wholly obtained or produced" in North America. For you NAFTA nerds out there, that means they qualify as originating under Preference Criterion A.

What about going the other way? What if I import some fuel and send it out into orbit? Does that constitute exportation for purposes of drawback? That is the question presented in HQ H282698 (Feb. 24, 2017).

The law permits an importer receive drawback on duties, taxes, and fees paid on imported merchandise that it unused in the united stated and then exported or destroyed within five years of importation. There are lots of documentary requirements and procedures that need to be followed to secure drawback, so don't assume that I just explained all the ins and outs to you.

Merchandise is still unused if it has been repacked or subjected to other operations specified in the law. Again, don't try this at home without getting legal advice. In this case, about 66% of the fuel is loaded onto the satellite to power its thrusters in orbit. The remainder is exported from the U.S. According to CBP, transferring the unused propellant to a container for export is repacking and does not constitute use. It is, therefore, eligible for drawback.

The propellant loaded into the satellite is a different story. According to CBP, it is "used at the moment of its injection into a satellite thruster system." It is, therefore, not eligible of "unused merchandise" drawback.

Customs, however, provides a helpful alternative. It is also possible to secure drawback on imported materials used to manufacture goods in the U.S. CBP has previously applied that to parts of a satellite manufactured in the U.S. and exported to China for launch. That export to China was the relevant export for drawback purposes, not the launch into space. But, other rulings had determined that "merchandise assembled into a communications satellite sent into permanent orbit in outer space" is exported for drawback purposes. In this recent ruling, CBP reaffirmed that decision and held that launch to permanent orbit is an exportation for drawback purposes.


UPDATE:

Yesterday was the brokers exam. I had an opportunity to review the questions and I realized this post might be viewed by some as incomplete. So, let me say that I am aware that 19 U.S.C. § 1484a exempts certain items returned from space from entry requirements.

If you took the test, I am referring to Question 39 about whether goods brought into the customs territory of the United States by NASA from space or from a foreign country require an entry. As I read that provision, it applies to items previously launched into space from the customs territory of the United States and which remain in the control of United States persons on United States owned vessels. It does not exempt items obtained in space and brought into the customs territory of the United States nor does it apply to goods that were launched into space from a foreign country and then brought from space to the U.S. I think the question is a bit of a mess. If the goods were obtained in space or launched into space from a foreign country, I think a formal entry is required; probably a type 52 government entry (but I have not checked that). If the goods were launched from the U.S., and the other requirements of the statute are met, no entry would be required.