Understanding Your Rights

June 27, 2008

Recent actions by Customs and Border Protection ("CBP") strongly suggest it has intensified enforcement efforts against small importers by showing up unannounced to conduct what it calls "importer premises visits."In the past, such visits have been routinely conducted by import specialists, but only after providing advance notice to the importer and with a focus limited to new or smaller importers "under the radar" of most data profiles conducted by CBP.  In recent days, CBP has shown up unannounced with teams of import specialists and auditors at the offices of small importers who may have been the target of seizures for textile quota violations or of other less-concerning errors, including errors which were purely broker-generated. During these unannounced visits, CBP officials have asked questions regarding the importer's purchase, import and sale operations, and requested entry, production and accounting documents on the spot.

What are an importer's rights in such cases? Must CBP be allowed in when they knock?

Without a warrant issued by a court, CBP officials may be legally denied access to an importer's premises. When they show up unannounced, the importer may politely tell them that the time is inconvenient but would be pleased to meet with them at a mutually convenient time. Although it may seem intimidating to an importer to have a half a dozen CBP officials appear unannounced, the importer has the right to refuse to meet with them then and there. Importers have rights to request that CBP make an appointment and an opportunity to gather, review and make copies of documents requested by CBP for production.

Even if Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") special agents show up with guns and badges, they still must bear a court-issued warrant - rather than an administratively-issued subpoena - in order to enter an importer's premises without consent. Inspection of the document presented by the agents will clearly show whether it is a court-issued warrant or an administrative subpoena, and they should fully understand and respect your rights, if you exercise them, in response to a subpoena.

Should CBP or ICE arrive at your door without a warrant, you have the right to make them wait before you let them in while you contact appropriate company officials, counsel or other advisors to decide with their advice whether you are prepared to meet at that time or at a later time more convenient to you, other company officials, your counsel or your advisor.

Special thanks to Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A. for providing this information.