Don't Let Uncle Sam Seize Your Salami.

Author:Ward, Alec

YOU'RE ON A plane, returning home from a romantic tour of the Italian countryside. The cabin lights flicker on and you're confronted by flight attendants passing out slips of official-looking blue cardstock: customs forms.

After scrounging a pen out of the bottom of your carry-on, you start to fill out the cramped response fields. Name, address, flight information. Back to the carry-on again, because who on Earth knows his own passport number? Finally, you come to the declaration section, and begin to tick off negative responses to the bizarre interrogatories. Bringing back soil? No. Seeds? No. Disease agents, cell cultures, or snails? No. Food or meat?

Your stomach drops as you remember the rustic charcuterie you purchased at a quaint butcher shop in Naples. Delicious, and not cheap, either. What to do? The once-boring form suddenly seems daunting. You're no scofflaw, but what will happen if you check "yes"? You don't want Uncle Sam to seize your salami. (That already happened once on this trip. Thanks, TSA.)

Subduing your law-abiding conscience, you cross your fingers, apologize to your divinity, and mark the box beside "no." OK, now what?

Probabilistically speaking, the answer is "likely nothing." Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn't usually conduct thorough searches of incoming commercial airline passenger baggage. Consequently, there's a decent chance your smuggled sausages slide through undiscovered.

But from a legal perspective, things look dicier. If you present your falsified form to a customs officer, you're technically in violation of a whole host of laws. And how costly is getting caught? Turns out it's hard to know. The applicable regulations are complex, numerous, redundant--and vague.

Say your goods are detected by one of CBP's trained foodsniffing dogs (yes, apparently the government believes dogs have to be trained to sniff out food). Depending on the stage of the inspection process, whether or not you've already handed over your form, what exactly the dog handler asks you, and what exactly you say, you could be guilty of import violations or criminal smuggling.

Civil import violations carry penalties tied to either the value of the article itself or to the taxes you would have been assessed if you'd declared it. In practice, criminal smuggling seems to be reserved for incidents involving drugs, but there's nothing in the law as written to prevent a prosecution for illicit meat.

At a minimum, you're likely guilty of...

To continue reading