Commentary on CBP money seizures in Philly

There is an interesting news release from CBP about some money seizures in Philadelphia that goes beyond the usual “facts-only” narrative style and  standard statements about the role of CBP in a typical CBP news release. I find it so interesting, in fact, that I am quoting it in full and providing my own commentary in red below:

Philadelphia — International travelers who arrive or depart the United States in possession of more than $10,000 are required to report all currency to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and complete a Treasury Department Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) form. Those who deliberately refuse to comply with this federal currency reporting requirement face hefty consequences, from mitigated penalties to having their currency seized.

This is not quite right, because there are others who  “face hefty consequences” apart from those who “deliberately refuse to comply.” This includes people who are ignorant or misinformed about the monetary instrument reporting requirements, people who do not know how much money they are carrying — which could be because they did not count it or forgot it was in a pocket on a suitcase from a prior trip, or people who do not know they are over the limit because they are carrying foreign currency and do not know the exchange rate.

My point: deliberate refusal is just one way to get your money seized. It is definitely not the only way to get money seized, which is what Customs says in this news release. The reporting requirement law is written so that even unknowing violations are still violations. So accidents or other non-deliberate acts can, and often will, result in a seizure of money by Customs.

For example, I know many of my clients are unaware of the reporting requirement.  Others are aware of it but have a vague understanding of what it means for them, what is included as a monetary instrument, and how it is to be reported. Others know of the reporting requirement but think it does not apply in their situation. Finally, there are those who know it applies to them and they intend to make the report. But, when confronted by a uniformed Customs official they are intimidated, panic stricken, or their words are misconstrued. Then the official takes their nervous response for a “deliberate refusal” and tells them to be quiet while they search their bags. They are not given a further opportunity to to file a report or even make a verbal report. 

Other times Customs officers will ask a question like: “How much money do you have on you?” or “How much money is in your wallet?” This question will trigger a truthful response like “a few thousand.” The problem with this scenario is that there may be only a few thousand in their wallet or on their person, but there is a bag in the trunk of their car or two fat envelopes in their checked baggage that has $15,000 in it. So in this case Customs has asked the wrong question, the person has given the correct response, and they are most likely going to get their money seized.

Obviously, I take issue with a question like “How much money is in your wallet?” because the real question should be “How much money are you transporting?” Sure, if you are a confident person, not intimidated by uniformed officers, and know the reporting requirement like the back of your hand then you might say, “Well, I have $2,500 in my wallet, but in my wife’s baggage there are two envelopes with a total of $9,860 and I have a notebook in my carry-on luggage with another €5,000, too.” This is the correct response to any question about your money, but who would think to respond like that when all they ask about is your wallet?

So because the person does not give a full disclosure and only answers the question asked by Customs, they will be taken to an area where the person thinks they will have a chance to make a report about what the officer didn’t ask about, count the money, and make the report. Then the officers conduct a secondary examination, searching their vehicle or their baggage and find all the money that was not reported to Customs — and they seize it, after lengthy questioning where the person misses their connecting flight or whatever appointments they might have.

Now here is the problem: The question about what is in their wallet is unfair if asked to try to elicit a violation of the reporting requirement. Yes, other questions are more fair, and more accurate. However, Customs does not have to ask anything at all. Knowing about the reporting requirement and making the report is entirely up to the person who is transporting the money. So even if Customs asks the trick wallet question, or they say nothing at all, you still have to file a report and file it correctly. My problem with trick  questions is that it seems  designed to elicit a violation rather than achieve compliance.

The story continues…

A Russian man learned that lesson the hard way after CBP officers seized $34,500 from him Thursday afternoon at Philadelphia International Airport. During a secondary examination, the Russian man claimed verbally and in writing that he possessed $9,000; however, CBP officers counted $35,000. CBP officers released $500 to the man for humanitarian relief and provided him directions on how to petition the U.S. government for the remaining currency.

This is just the standard petition process, but you also have other options. Usually the petition advice is not received until given the notice of seizure, which can come days, weeks, or even months after the money seizure occurs. The length of times varies on the investigation, case load, and size of the port.

CBP officers assessed a mitigated $1,000 penalty to another Russian man who arrived on the same flight. That man also reported possessing only $9,000; however CBP officers discovered a stack of bills in his baggage. All currency equaled $18,800.

Well, good for this man who got his money back on the scene – usually any mis-report by 5% or more will not be returned on the scene; however, if the total amount is $25,000 or less and no further investigation into the incident is deemed warranted and the traveler has documentation showing legitimate source and legitimate intended use and there is no nexus to criminal activity, then the money can be returned.

“Customs and Border Protection officers offer travelers multiple opportunities to truthfully report their currency, but those who refuse to comply with federal currency reporting requirements face severe consequences, such as hefty penalties, or having their currency seized, or potential criminal charges,” said Allan Martocci, CBP port director for the area port of Philadelphia. “The easiest way to keep your currency is to truthfully report it.”

I know that this is sometimes true, but I am also sure that this is not always true. I know many clients had  opportunities to report transporting more than $10,000 in money but there are many have also been subjected to “zealous enforcement” and asked trick questions without sufficient opportunity to make, or amend, a report.  Sometimes the philosophy of some Customs officers is to “seize first, ask questions later.”

My clients also report intimidating behavior while they are being detained, like back-slapping, laughter, high-fiving among officers about their seizure prowess, unfounded threats of criminal prosecution, and Dirty Harry type comments like, “This ain’t your first time at the rodeo.”

It is also true, as this news release says, that the easiest way to keep your currency is to report it; but Customs can still theoretically seize your money if you have under $10,000 and they think you are “structuring” to avoid to have to file a report, or if you report over $10,000 but lack good documentation about the source and use of the funds, or if they believe it has some connection to criminal activity.

The story continues…

Philadelphia CBP recorded three additional currency reporting violations recently and one ended in the seizure of $17,516.

  • CBP issued a mitigated $500 penalty to an Israeli man April 18 who claimed that he possessed $10,000; however CBP officers discovered an additional $860 in his pockets.
  • CBP issued a mitigated $1,000 penalty to a Swiss mother and her Israeli son April 10 after CBP officers discovered $23,146 in U.S. dollars, Swiss francs and Israeli shekels. The pair, who arrived from Switzerland, reported possessing a combined $10,100 U.S. dollars and 7,700 Swiss francs. CBP officers discovered multiple bundles of currency during a baggage examination and inside a travel pillow. [See, this type of discovery makes Customs suspicious — but if you are traveling internationally it makes perfect sense to keep the money in different locations in your personal effects so that if lost or stolen, not all your money is lost or stolen. But, in this case the different locations probably resulted in a  a charge of failure to report and bulk cash smuggling.]
  • CBP issued a mitigated $1,000 penalty to a British man April 5 after CBP officers discovered that the man possessed $20,839 in U.S. dollars and British pounds. The man, who arrived from the United Kingdom, declared possessing only $9,000. CBP officers discovered several bundles of British pounds and two envelopes containing U.S. currency.
  • CBP seized $17,516 from a Nigerian woman who arrived March 29 after CBP officers discovered that she possessed $19,016. The woman claimed that she possessed $7,000; however CBP officers found more than $7,000 during an examination of the woman’s purse. CBP officers released $1,500 to the woman for humanitarian purposes and provided the woman directions to petition for the remaining currency.
  • In each case involving mitigated penalties, CBP officers required the travelers to complete a FinCEN form.

There is no limit to how much currency travelers can import or export; however federal law requires travelers to report to CBP amounts exceeding $10,000 in U.S. dollars or equivalent foreign currency.

In addition to narcotics interdiction, CBP routinely conducts inspection operations on arriving and departing international flights and intercepts currency, weapons, prohibited agriculture products or other illicit items.

So there you have it. If you have had currency seized from Customs do not try to respond yourself but hire our firm, because we know what we are doing and have successfully handled many cases like yours. If you have questions, please give us a call at (734) 855-4999.