Why is this relevant to customs law? Because tariff classification is really a matter of following the literary trail of rules through the Tariff Schedule along with the gloss applied by the Explanatory Notes, CBP rulings, and court decisions. In many ways, it is not all that complicated. The trick is finding all the applicable rules and applying them properly.
One question that has come up recently is the meaning of "use" in a tariff term. Here, again, the answer comes from finding the right rule. Additional U.S. Rule of Interpretation 1(a) states:
Obviously, that is a clue that requires us to determine exactly what the heck "principal use" means.
a tariff classification controlled by use (other than actual use) is to be determined in accordance with the use in the United States at, or immediately prior to, the date of importation, of goods of that class or kind to which the imported goods belong, and the controlling use is the principal use . . . .
One place to get that answer is rulings. Customs has pretty consistently held that principal use is the single use that exceeds all others in the United States for articles of the same class or kind at or immediately prior to the time of exportation. Take a look, for example, at HQ 84710. That means that if there are 30 uses for something and the most common use is only done 4% of the time, that is the principal use. This differs from chief use under the old tariff schedule, but there is no reason to drag that out of its casket to drive a stake into its heart.
This, of course, leads to the question of what is the appropriate class or kind of the merchandise. For that, look to court decisions. For example, in BASF v. US (starting at page 29) the issue was the principal use of a chemical used in the production of gasoline additives. In that case, the court held that when determining the class or kind of merchandise, the court should look to goods that are "commercially fungible." The court also noted a number of factors to consider including:
- general physical characteristics
- expectations of the ultimate purchaser
- channels of trade
- use in the same manner as merchandise that defines the class
- the economic practicality of so using the product
- recognition in the trade
So the critical things for a classification-by-use analysis are determining the class or kind into which the imports fall and then the most common use in the U.S. of that class or kind. What this means in a practical sense is hard to tell. It certainly means that the actual use of any given shipment is of marginal relevance. Clearly, the use of a single shipment (or even every shipment by a single importer) is some evidence of the use of the merchandise in the U.S.; but, it can't be the end of the story.
Rather, if you face a principal use issue, you need to look to industry practice and standards. You should try to gather supporting evidence from trade publications, catalogs, and other reliable sources. All of that is part of the backup to your classification determination and goes toward establishing reasonable care in your classification.
One other interesting tidbit on use: When a product is described by two or more headings, the General Rules of Interpretation require that the more specific heading prevail. By dint of judicial opinion, use provisions are generally (but not always) deemed to be more specific than eo nomine provisions. Go figure.