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Custom-Made Abuses at Customs

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You know it is going to be a bad day when your Customs inspector starts putting on latex gloves.

A rising floodtide of scandal is engulfing the Customs Service. Press reports across the nation are trumpeting cases of Customs agents taking bribes and abusing their power. A Treasury Department investigation is looking at the agency’s failure to discipline renegade employees.

Customs’ newest recycling program is also generating a backlash on Capitol Hill. In Tuscon in late 1998, a Customs guard team wandered off while a huge shipment of illicit drugs was being burned. As a result, someone sneaked into the trash-burning plant and absconded with 500 pounds of marijuana. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that up to 60 tons of illicit drugs may have been stolen at this burn site and put back on the streets of America.

And the Customs Service is harvesting harsh criticism for abusive searches by its inspectors. Some drug smugglers swallow condoms full of cocaine or heroin. Because of such tactics, Customs agents insist on the right to detain some suspects until they have a bowel movement. African-Americans and African citizens have frequently been targeted for such “searches” — which can include putting a person in leg irons next to a toilet for up to 48 hours incommunicado until he has a bowel movement, which Customs agents can then inspect.

One such case was appealed some years ago to the Supreme Court, which regrettably upheld such “searches.” Justice William Brennan dissented: “The available evidence suggests that the number of highly intrusive border searches of suspicious-looking but ultimately innocent travelers may be very high. One physician who at the request of Customs officials conducted many ‘internal searches’ — rectal and vaginal examinations and stomach-pumping — estimated that he had found contraband in only 15 to 20 percent of the persons he had examined. It has similarly been estimated that only 16 percent of the women subject to body-cavity searches at the border were in fact found to be carrying contraband.”

In Chicago, Customs agents have strip-searched far more women than men, even though they are much less successful in finding drugs on women. Very little evidence is required for Customs agents to justify detaining someone for this most invasive of searches. A federal court ruled in 1997 that Customs inspectors were justified in forcing an African-American woman to undergo such a search in part because inspectors found a small container of Vaseline in her suitcase – which they claimed could have been used to help insert the drugs into the body. Some Customs inspectors apparently look at a jar of Vaseline the same way that traffic cops view a giant bong sitting on the dashboard of a hippie van. Such expansive search policies help explain why the Customs Service is now the nation’s leading employer of amateur proctologists.

Garden-variety corruption is also taking its toll. The Customs Service recently admitted in a report to Congress: “The large amounts of illegal drugs that pass through U.S. Customs land, sea, and air ports of entry and the enormous amount of money at the disposal of drug traffickers to corrupt law enforcement personnel place Customs and its employees at great risk to corruption.” Some observers see Customs’ self-criticisms as an attempt to head off potentially far more damaging investigations by outsiders.

At a speech in late 1997 to a conference of importers and exporters in Miami, Lynn Gordon, the Customs Management Center director for South Florida, announced that the Customs Service has “changed from a police force to a partner of business.” Gordon assured the audience, “We like to visualize Customs as being totally invisible to business.”

The Customs Service is reinventing itself, along Clinton-administration lines, with a smiley-face in recent years. But what does the agency really do? What does Customs offer to back up the “partner” rhetoric?

Checking the Customs Service website, one finds primarily bragging about its drug busts, seizures, convictions, etc. The home page of the Customs Service contains a drawing on which people can click on to see “The Detector Dog of the Month!” Clicking on the press releases, one sees various proclamations: “Customs Inspectors Nab 235-Pound Cocaine Load,” “Another Ton Bites the Dust,” “Customs Special Agents Seize 399 Pounds of Cocaine,” “Drug ‘Swallower’ Dies From Overdose,” “New Customs X-Ray Yields Marijuana,” and “Customs Inspectors Seize Heroin.”

In its Five-Year Strategic Plan, the highest priority item is devoted to “narcotics and money-laundering strategies.” Customs is proud that its agencies routinely confiscate more heroin, cocaine, and marijuana than all other federal agencies combined.

Customs agents are also responsible for enforcing the more than 8,000 different tariff categories contained in federal trade law. Customs must also administer more than 3,000 import quotas — ranging from cheese to sugar to clothing and textiles. In order to implement these quotas, Customs officials must make one judicious distinction after another about which items are supposedly covered by the quotas.

Consider the case of TV Ducks — cotton products made to sit on the arm of a couch and hold a TV remote control. Robert Capps, who owned a small company in Skyland, North Carolina, ordered a large shipment of the products from China, but the Customs Service prohibited the entry of the shipment in 1995. Why? Because Customs claimed that the little novelty items belonged in the same tariff category as bedspreads — and thus that Capps needed a textile import quota before he could import them. No U.S. company was making TV Ducks, but Customs officials remained hell-bent on protecting American consumers from the product. Capps hired a lawyer who quickly persuaded a federal judge to overturn Customs’ edict. However, the Justice Department appealed the decision — and dragged the case out for a year and a half before a higher panel of federal judges again trounced the agency.

The Justice Department then proceeded to successfully fight tooth and nail to avoid reimbursing Capps’s attorneys fees. “This is a perfect illustration of how the Customs Service abuses its power over small companies — it is a total outrage,” said Greg Rushford, who broke this story in his Rushford Report, the best place to learn about U.S. trade screw-ups.

The Customs Service has far more seizure power than most travelers know.

One of the items most frequently seized by Customs agents is Cuban cigars. The St. Petersburg Times reported that on a typical day, such cigars account for more than half of the seizures carried out by Customs agents in Miami. Nationwide, 90,000 cigars were seized last year. Cuban cigars were embargoed by President Kennedy in 1962 (after he secured a massive personal supply of the topnotch smokes). With the cigar mania and skyrocketing prices of recent years, smuggling cigars has become profitable for many people. However, if someone is caught with a sufficient number of cigars, the feds could prosecute under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act and the person could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Customs Commissioner Ray Kelly recently announced reforms in the search procedures followed by Customs agents. While the changes are a step in the right direction, the clock is already ticking down to the next Customs controversy. In the final realm, Customs’ latest crackdown on corruption is doomed by human nature.

Expecting the Customs Service to catch all drug smugglers is like expecting an independent counsel to catch all of Bill Clinton’s prevarications. The profits of the drug trade will continue to overwhelm whatever administrative mechanisms are devised to turn government workers into angels. As long as the drug war continues making illicit drugs obscenely profitable, corruption and abuse scandals will continue erupting like Old Faithful.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.