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Don't Let Uncle Sam Seize Your Salami

Civil import violations carry penalties tied to either the value of the article itself or to the taxes you would have been assessed if you'd declared it.

This article is part of Reason's special Burn After Reading issue, where we offer how-tos, personal stories, and guides for all kinds of activities that can and do happen at the borders of legally permissible behavior. Subscribe Now and get fast first class delivery of the July issue at no extra cost!

You're on a plane, returning home from a romantic tour of the Italian countryside. The cabin lights flicker on and you're confronted by flight attendants passing out slips of official-looking blue cardstock: customs forms.

After scrounging a pen out of the bottom of your carry-on, you start to fill out the cramped response fields. Name, address, flight information. Back to the carry-on again, because who on Earth knows his own passport number? Finally, you come to the declaration section, and begin to tick off negative responses to the bizarre interrogatories. Bringing back soil? No. Seeds? No. Disease agents, cell cultures, or snails? No. Food or meat?

Your stomach drops as you remember the rustic charcuterie you purchased at a quaint butcher shop in Naples. Delicious, and not cheap, either. What to do? The once-boring form suddenly seems daunting. You're no scofflaw, but what will happen if you check "yes"? You don't want Uncle Sam to seize your salami. (That already happened once on this trip. Thanks, TSA.)

Subduing your law-abiding conscience, you cross your fingers, apologize to your divinity, and mark the box beside "no." OK, now what?

Probabilistically speaking, the answer is "likely nothing." Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn't usually conduct thorough searches of incoming commercial airline passenger baggage. Consequently, there's a decent chance your smuggled sausages slide through undiscovered.

But from a legal perspective, things look dicier. If you present your falsified form to a customs officer, you're technically in violation of a whole host of laws. And how costly is getting caught? Turns out it's hard to know. The applicable regulations are complex, numerous, redundant—and vague.

Say your goods are detected by one of CBP's trained food-sniffing dogs (yes, apparently the government believes dogs have to be trained to sniff out food). Depending on the stage of the inspection process, whether or not you've already handed over your form, what exactly the dog handler asks you, and what exactly you say, you could be guilty of import violations or criminal smuggling.

Civil import violations carry penalties tied to either the value of the article itself or to the taxes you would have been assessed if you'd declared it. In practice, criminal smuggling seems to be reserved for incidents involving drugs, but there's nothing in the law as written to prevent a prosecution for illicit meat.

At a minimum, you're likely guilty of "failure to declare," a catchall offense that seems to be popular among CBP officers who work in airports. Unlike the more technical importation violations, which apply only to taxable goods (a category for which your charcuterie is unlikely to qualify), you can be guilty of "failure to declare" even if the thing you're trying to bring in isn't subject to a tax, duty, or other restriction. Mere failure to disclose its presence is enough to create liability.

But depending what exactly your meat is made of, where it comes from, and whether any export-import treaties are applicable in its case, you may be breaking the law just by carrying it into the country. The relevant statute says the penalty for failing to declare a "controlled substance"—which in this case means anything that can't be legally imported, not just narcotics—is $500 or 10 times the value of the item, whichever is higher. If the item is not a controlled substance, you're still supposed to be assessed a fine equal to its value, plus any applicable taxes, plus a portion thereof again as yet another penalty.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that because of confusion around the rules, customs officers have a tremendous amount of discretion regarding how to handle violations. Anthony Bucci, a spokesman for CBP's New York field office, says that in the context of agriculture enforcement, whether a fine is imposed (and how steep it is) often comes down to whether an inspecting officer thinks the passenger has deliberately tried to pull a fast one on him.

"It's not a guarantee that the [failure to declare] fine will be assessed—it could be just a warning," he says. "The fine is more in the cases where the person is being dishonest, is not being truthful."

Online accounts from folks who report having been discovered transporting undeclared victuals variously report assessment of the full $500 levy, a lesser $300 levy, or no levy at all. A clip from a National Geographic television show about customs enforcement in New York City shows an airline passenger being fined $300 for a sandwich discovered in a carry-on bag he says his mother packed for him. On the eye-popping end of the spectrum, Columba Bush, wife of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was reportedly fined $4,100 for failing to declare $19,000 in clothing and jewelry she bought on a trip to Paris in 1999.

If you are charged a penalty, good luck contesting it. On-the-spot fines imposed at the airport are generally not adjudicable, according to Bucci. "We have a cashier's window right inside our federal inspection site," he says. "If you have to pay a fine, you have to pay it right there.…The burden of admissibility into the United States is on the traveler. That traveler has to, for lack of a better word, prove their admissibility 100 percent."


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  • Libertymike||

    FoE -

    Its now 3-1........

  • Jerryskids||

    I was just going to ask if anybody knew the score on the Cal game, thanks, LM.

  • Radioactive||

    ...prevent a prosecution for illicit meat... This is after all Pride Week!!!

  • Zeb||

    They aren't prosecuting anyone. They just want that delicious cured meat for themselves. Fuckers.

  • Citizen X||

    Illicit Meat was my nickname at bible camp.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Mark 7:19 - Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

  • Citizen X||

    Sure, we'll go with that.

  • Jerryskids||

    Your other option is to scarf down the salami while you're still sitting on the plane. And if you can't scarf down a half-kilo of primo salami in one sitting, you don't deserve that stuff anyway.

  • Citizen X||

    I've been practicing for over two decades, just in case i ever have to do that.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Circle the whole form and write in the corner, "I wish to exercise my 5th amendment right against self incrimination."

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    Ha, ha, ha!

    Oh, you naive little fool. Don't you understand that not until you get past the doors and in your way to the long term parking place, you're not really yet in America, and therefore the government --the same government that thinks your personal trade with Canada and Mexico is a national security threat-- feels it can violate your rights seven ways to Sunday?

    If that creep, the Kleeber Elf, feels no qualms about snatching children from the arms of their parents, do you think his agents give two shits about your right not to self-incriminate?

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    That would be Keebler Elf.

  • Radioactive||

    are you absolutely sure about that? Kleeber sounds right...just sayin...

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Oh that's true. And Constitutional rights only apply in this magical land to its chosen people, because after all, we wouldn't have rights at all if not for the benevolence of government almighty to have given us a piece of paper listing them.

    Could you imagine the look on the border agents face though if you refused to answer any questions based on 5A? It would be pretty comical until the body cavity search started.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    "The burden of admissibility into the United States is on the traveler. That traveler has to, for lack of a better word, prove their admissibility 100 percent."

    But I'm a citizen! This rule is intended for illegal people, not me!

  • Longtobefree||

    You clearly have that backwards - - - - -

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "Check out Alec Ward's guide on getting delicious foreign meats through customs:"

    In no way was this article a guide to getting anything through customs.

  • Don't look at me.||

    I was disappointed as well.

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    Turns out it's hard to know. The applicable regulations are complex, numerous, redundant—and vague.


    Just like immigration law. Which is why you have that scourge to the economy which are "illegal salami importers" and, what else, "illegal immigrants."

  • Citizen X||

    Say your goods are detected by one of CBP's trained food-sniffing dogs (yes, apparently the government believes dogs have to be trained to sniff out food).

    These dogs are federal employees, so it's a fair assumption.

  • Old Mexican - Mostly Harmless||

    I've been reassured by statists of every ilk, from Marxians to Trumpistas, that federal agents, including their dogs, are the best of the best of the best.

    Really, a minute doesn't pass by without CNN bemoaning the treatment FBI agents get from the president, nor are Trumpistas and the "Suck Trump's Dick Squad" at Fox & Friends too slow to tell us how is it that our rights are secured by wedding party-bombing drones or how grateful we should be that the police shoot and kill people quickly, because "security".

    (Really, what's with drones and wedding parties?)

  • Don't look at me.||

    It's related to tornadoes at trailer parks.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    These euphemisms...

  • Zeb||

    I'm still kicking myself for not bringing home some jamon from Spain the last two times I was there. No one checked my carry-on at all.

  • Don't look at me.||

    It wasn't checked because they knew you didn't have any delicious jamon in your bag.

  • Ron||

    Often its easier to mail it to your self or check online and just have it shipped to your house

  • Rhywun||

    I'm completely mystified why these rules exist at all. I get having to declare or even ban certain living things, but food? Clothing?? It makes no sense at all except as a fundraising scheme in which case why the hell do people put up with it?

  • Longtobefree||

    People put up with for the simple reason that they are unarmed while the government is armed.
    In a battle between a man with a gun and a man with a salami, the man with a salami is a dead man.

  • Agammamon||

    That's an old Mexican Proverb...and it's true.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Protection racket.
    No need to worry about protection Citizen, we've got you covered.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    In theory, food from abroad sometimes doesn't meet US food safety standards. Which is ridiculous, I've never gotten sick from eating German sausage in Germany. But I'm still not going to pack it in my luggage.

    The clothes are to stop people from importing fake branded clothing, which is an issue from some countries. Not a big deal to me if the jeans I bought say "Levi", but aren't, but if you're going to have laws prohibiting fake branding, you're going to enforce them.

  • Mark22||

    I'm completely mystified why these rules exist at all.

    Because of concerns over disease. Italy has BSE.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Some of these restrictions are ti comply with the minutiae of trade treaties and tax law, some of them are intended to protect from invasive insects and disease vectors for agriculture. It should be fairly well known that taking meat, or raw fruit or vegetables across an international border is taking a chance, at best.

  • Ron||

    vegetables, fruits and animals across state lines are even looked over

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "CBP's trained food-sniffing dogs (yes, apparently the government believes dogs have to be trained to sniff out food)."

    This is a retarded sentence. The dogs are not trained to sniff food, they are trained to signal if they sniff food. When I potty trained my kid, I wasn't training him to shit, I was training him to shit a certain way.

  • Citizen X||

    In the middle of your neighbor's driveway, right?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    You think people flying into the US with sausage in their checked bags are nervous, you should be on a plane about to land in the Philippines, when they hand out the declaration forms with "DEATH TO ALL DRUG SMUGGLERS!" in bold letters, top and bottom.

    All I had with me was some cold medicine, and I still joined the long line to the bathroom.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Don't Let Uncle Sam Seize Your Salami"'

    What if they don't seize it, but just feel it up a bit before they let you on the plane?

  • NealAppeal||

    Isn't it just the courteous reach-around everyone has been complaining about not receiving?

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Yeah ... I had a situation during a layover in Amman, Jordan yesterday when airport security took the necklace I had bought for a friend. They thought I didn't understand that I would spend 2 months in a Jordanian jail if I did not also surrender the necklace I was wearing. It took a couple of hours for me to make them understand that I would spend 2 months in a Jordanian jail if they did not return my friend's necklace. Once they fully comprehended this possibility, they returned my friend's necklace, let me keep the necklace around my neck, and rushed me thought the other two security check points to make sure I would catch my plane out of their country.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    I got a pair of tighty-whiteys printed up with "SEIZE THE SALAMI".

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    I got a pair of tighty-whiteys printed up with "SEIZE THE SALAMI".