Once U.S. Customs and Border Protection seizes your money or property it can eventually be forfeited (lost forever to the government); it doesn’t matter if it’s merchandise or cash/currency transported without being reported, structured, or smuggled. Before the property is forfeited the owner can try to get it back (remitted).
But once property is forfeited, it forever becomes property of the United States Government. As a government attorney once told me, it goes to that big government warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I don’t think he was joking.
What happens after property is seized by Customs?
First, appraisement: CBP must give anything seized a “domestic value.” This is usually measured by
“price at which such or similar property is freely offered for sale at the time and place of appraisement, in the same quantity or quantities as seized, and in the ordinary course of trade.” Although an oversimplification, this is basically the fair-market value of the seized property at the time and place of seizure.
Customs conducts an inspection of the goods to determine if they are admissible (i.e., whether they can be allowed entry into the U.S.). Certain things, like narcotics, unsafe electrical components, or lead-tainted children’s toys are inadmissable.
What happens after property is forfeited by Customs?
If the goods are admissible, but the importer could not get the property back at the agency or through federal district court, then Customs can:
- Destroy it. If Customs determines it violates copyright laws, has no commercial value, or is a safety risk or violates U.S. law, the port director is authorized destroy the forfeited merchandise. If this doesn’t apply, it can be disposed elsewhere.
- Sell it. If the merchandise is sold, Customs will notify the importer, the consignee, the shipper, and the warehouse transferee of the sale no less than 30 days beforehand and then hold a public auction, sometimes online, overseen by the port director. This includes perishables, agricultural products, alcoholic beverages, and vehicles. Counterfeit goods may be sold with the permission of the U.S. trademark holder once the counterfeit mark has been obliterated and at least 90 days after forfeiture, provided that no government agency or charitable institution has a need for them. For example, customs has donated seized fossils to the University of Michigan in the past.
- Use it. Last, the government can use it. The products must be unclaimed or abandoned, which means nonpayment of duties and 6 months in Customs custody. The port director must give a 30 day notice, as above. Afterward, the items belong to Customs and they can decide to to use it or distribute it to another government agency.
Item 3 is true for seized money/currency. At the completion of all procedures, seized and forfeited money transfers to the U.S. government. If your money was seized by Customs, read our Customs Money Seizure Legal Guide.