By: Stephen Wagner
Your foreign customer has been complaining to you about the high duties on your products when they are imported into his country. He asks if you could manifest an item as a “Return of Goods under Warranty.” That way, his company will avoid having to pay customs duties when the merchandise is imported.
You know that the merchandise will be properly valued and described (other than the “warranty return” label) when your freight forwarder inputs the Electronic Export Information into the Automated Export System (AES). This will really help the customer, so this isn’t a big deal, right?
There is an old proverb that states, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” However, when it comes to export regulation and enforcement matters, the “First Law of Blissful Ignorance” is probably more accurate:
What you don’t know will always hurt you.
Improperly declaring export information in AES is a violation of the Foreign Trade Regulations (FTRs), which are codified at title 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) part 30. Specifically, 15 C.F.R. § 30.3(a) requires that electronic export information (EEI) be “complete, correct, and based on personal knowledge of the facts stated or on information furnished by the parties to the export transaction.” This requirement of accuracy applies (in this case) to the merchandise information that is submitted pursuant to 15 C.F.R. § 30.6(a)(13), which calls for a description of the commodity.
Therefore, even if you disregard the guidance contained in the FTRs regarding the “reporting of repairs and replacements” (15 C.F.R. §30.29) and accurately report the price and the commodity classification number, misrepresenting that merchandise as a warranty return, when it is not, is still a violation of the FTRs.
Subpart H of the FTRs (15 C.F.R. §§ 30.71-74) outlines the penalty provisions for export violations; these penalty provisions are enforced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Penalties for this type of infraction can be as high as $10,000 per violation, but CBP mitigation guidelines could reduce the penalties to as low as $500, if this is your company’s first offense. Moreover, according to CBP:
For first violations of the FTR, CBP may take alternative action to the assessment of penalties, including, but not limited to, educating and informing the parties involved in the export transaction of the applicable U.S. export laws and regulations, or issuing a warning letter to the party.
(U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Guidelines for the Imposition and Mitigation of Civil Penalties for Failure to Comply with the Foreign Trade Regulations in 15 CFR Part 30,” CBP Dec. 08-50 (Feb. 2009)).
But that may not be the end of your potential enforcement liabilities.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of Carl and David Pasquantino and Arthur Hilts who were arrested and convicted of smuggling large quantities of liquor from the United States into Canada to evade Canada’s high alcohol import taxes. In this case, the men were convicted of criminal wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343.
The federal criminal wire fraud statute prohibits the use of the “instrumentalities of interstate or international telecommunications in furtherance of any scheme or artifice to defraud.” The Court in Pasquantino held that a scheme to deprive a foreign government of lawful duties and taxes comes within the scope of a “scheme or artifice to defraud” in the U.S. federal wire fraud statute. (Pasquantino v. United States, 544 U.S. 349, 354-55 (2005)).
The bottom line is that whenever a U.S. exporter knowingly falsifies any export information or export documents with the result that a foreign country is deprived of its lawful import duties, that action may constitute a Pasquantino violation.
Therefore, if you electronically transmit your EEI to AES with the erroneous “warranty return” information, under Pasquantino, you could be guilty of criminal wire fraud, because you are using your U.S. computer to deprive your customer’s foreign government of its duties. Also, if you mail copies of the export documents with that same false information, that may be a violation of the federal criminal mail fraud statute (18 U.S.C. § 1341).
While the penalties for the AES violations may be as negligible as informed compliance from CBP, a warning letter, or a mitigated penalty of $500, a criminal conviction of federal wire fraud and/or mail fraud can carry prison sentences up to 20 years per violation and a fine of up to $250,000 for each violation. Such serious potential consequences of even “minor” export violations is why your company – and every U.S. exporter – should religiously adhere to all export laws and regulations, and make export compliance a top corporate priority.