U.S. Customs & Border Protection (“Customs”) enforces its laws through the imposition of fines, penalties, and forfeitures. This article looks specifically at penalties imposed by Customs under 19 USC § 1592, which is the penalty statute for commercial fraud and negligence.
In essence, § 1592 is a law that penalizes any person that does or attempts to enter or introduce merchandise into the United States by means of any 1) material omission or 2) material and false document, written or oral statement, or act that has the potential to alter the classification, appraisement, or admissibility of merchandise. § 1592(a)(1)(A). It is also a violation to aid or abet anyone in violating this law. § 1592(a)(1)(B) This law is violated even if the government does not lose duties or other revenue.
Penalties can be assessed at three different levels of culpability, with more severe penalties for offenses committed with greater culpability. These levels of culpability are:
- Negligence: defined by Customs as failure to exercise reasonable care;
- Gross Negligence: defined by Customs as “actual knowledge or wanton disregard”; and,
- Fraud: defined by Customs as “voluntarily and intentionally.”
For an alleged violation of § 1592, Customs may issue a penalty on (sometimes on form 5955A) against the violator — which may be any person or people involved, including the importer of record, an employee, agent, consignee, etc. You are not immune just because a corporation, limited liability company, or someone else is the importer of record.
Before Customs issues the penalty, however, they must first issue a pre-penalty notice that typically gives the alleged violator 30 days to respond and provide reasons why they should not be penalized. § 1592(b)(1). Although somewhat rare, Customs can then decide against penalty; however, in most circumstances Customs goes forward and issues penalty notice to the alleged violator. If your company receives a pre-penalty notice Customs may still, in the future, go after certain individuals without issuing another pre-penalty notice to them. This often catches people by surprise and some will ignore a penalty notice thinking it will not be applied to them personally, but such is not the case.
If you or your company receives a pre-penalty or penalty notice it should be taken very seriously. Typically, a penalty notice requires a response within 60 days by either paying the alleged penalty, or as we typically recommend to clients, by making an offer in compromise or filing a petition for remission and/or mitigation. These responses – responses to both pre-penalty notices and penalty notices – should be drafted by an attorney experienced in the customs laws and should argue, where the facts and law allow, against imposition of a penalty or reduction in the level of culpability, along with a request to make an oral presentation to Customs.
After Customs first decision on any petition, there is an additional opportunity to file a second or supplemental petitions to argue for a more favorable decision. If you are faced with a penalty, or have recently discovered violations of § 1592 and are considering a prior disclosure to avoid harsh penalties then please contact our office immediately by filling out our contact form or by calling (734) 855-499 and speaking with a customs lawyer directly.