Before October 2018 I had not yet seen a customs penalty case. Since then, inquiries about customs penalty cases have increased to approximately one every two months. At ports of entry, Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) is asking visitors and U.S. citizens about goods that they are importing or have imported to the United States. Upon finding the imported goods were not declared, CBP may issue a penalty. Something as simple as selling items online in Canada, then bringing them to the US for shipment may lead to a $5,000 penalty and loss of Nexus privileges if not declared to CBP.
Failure to declare imported items is a violation of 19 USC 1433(d) and 19 USC 1436. CBP has the authority to issue fines and penalties pursuant to Treasury Decisions 00-57 and 00-58 “and other orders and directives.” These provisions have been incorporated into the customs regulations at parts 171 and 172 of Title 19 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Within approximately three weeks of finding a customs violation at the port of entry, the local Fines Penalties and Forfeitures Officer will send notice of the penalty by mail. This notice will include brief factual details supporting the finding of a violation. For example, the notice may say that the recipient drove a car to his or her vacation property in the US and left it there without filing the correct import documents at the time of entry. Additionally, the notice will provide information on how to pay the penalty or petition for mitigation.
A petition for mitigation should include an explanation of the facts and circumstances that led to the violation (along with relevant supporting documents). The local Fines Penalties and Forfeitures (“FP&F”) Officer evaluates a petition for remission or mitigation by weighing the factors set forth in CBP’s Informed Compliance Publication: What Every Member of the Trade Community Should Know About: Customs Administrative Enforcement Process: Fines, Penalties, Forfeitures and Liquidated Damages. Some factors that may weigh in favor of mitigation include: (1) lack of intent to violate the law, (2) concealment only for safekeeping, rather than to evade U.S. law, (3) behavior demonstrating respect for law and order, and (4) lack of importing experience.
The local FP&F Officer must receive the petition for mitigation within 60 days of the date of the notice. Then, the FP&F Officer will issue a decision by mail. A successful petition may result in a reduced fine or canceled penalty. As a best practice for avoiding this procedure, prior to departure travelers should take a brief inventory of the items in their vehicle that may be left in the U.S. Then make a list of these items to recite to an inspecting officer at the time of entry.