US Customs Detention of Merchandise

There is a legal distinction in the Customs laws between a a “detention,” a “seizure” and a “forfeiture.” In other words, a seizure is not a detention, and a detention is not a seizure, and a forfeiture is different from a detention and a seizure.

A detention, seizure, and a forfeiture are essentially steps in a legal process used by U.S. Customs & Border Protection. in this part, we will be discussing the meaning of detention in customs law, the rights of an interested person who has had property detained by U.S. customs, and the possible outcomes after a detention.

What is a detention?

A “detention” is when merchandise is presented to Customs for examination (i.e., upon importation) and, after 5 business days, Customs has not decided whether to release or detain the merchandise.

What are my rights in a detention?

If the merchandise is not released within 5 business days, the goods are detained. Technically, the law requires Customs to issue a notice within 5 business days that the goods are being detained. This commonly does not happen. The notice is supposed to state:

(A) the initiation of the detention;
(B) the specific reason for the detention;
(C) the anticipated length of the detention;
(D) the nature of the tests or inquiries to be conducted; and
(E) the nature of any information which, if supplied to the Customs Service, may accelerate the disposition of the detention.

19 USC 1499(c)(2). You can also receive, upon request, “copies of the results of any testing conducted by the Customs Service on the merchandise and a description of the testing procedures and methodologies . . . ” 1499(c)(3).

What happens after merchandise is detained?

Often, after detention, it is determined that the product is inadmissible into the United States and is subject to seizure. Thereafter, CBP will send a notice of seizure to interested parties explaining the reasons (or at least citing to the laws alleged to be violated) and their optional responses to the seizure.

But, If no decision is made to admit or exclude the merchandise within 30 days after the date first presented to Customs, the merchandise is “deemed excluded” which means that the goods could be exported, an administrative protest could be filed, and if a decision on the protest is not made within 30 days, it is deemed denied and the protestant (protest filer) has a right to judicial review in the Court of International Trade.