US Customs - do I dare complain?

There are a few organizations that I can think of where a valid complaint seems risky. For example, a written complaint to the IRS seems sure to attract an audit every year for the rest of your life. A written complaint about a police officer in a small town almost guarantees a traffic ticket or two. I’m sure there are plenty of examples out there.

I moved back to the US recently and was hassled by US customs because I shipped 30 bottles of wine home from France along with the contents of my house. They were able to assess duty on the wine the day it arrived (payable immediately) but then went on to ask inane questions for six weeks to (WAG) punish the moving company for accepting to ship alcohol into their Southern state.
At one point they asked the moving company to photocopy the lables of all the wine. They wanted to know what 750 cl. meant. They wanted confirmation that the French labled wine from a French winemaker was indeed from France! All of the info was on the shipping documentation but they wanted to play “slow-down”. For six weeks.

I will eventually move back to France for my job (I’m American, btw), passing through US customs once again - do I dare file a complaint? I have nothing to hide but it was pretty inconvenient and expensive to pay rent and stay in a hotel due to lack of furniture. Do I risk getting hasseled on the way out?

And besides, these jerks may be doing the same thing to everybody that ships a few bottles of wine into the country - last I checked it was legal to import alcohol to the US as long as you paid duty (or were under the personal exemption like when you by duty-free). Would you dare?

To whom would I complain?

Write your Congressperson. Unlike the IRS, the only time Customs can touch you is when you come into the US. As long as they think they’re done with you, they’re not going to put you on some kind of harrassment list.

Years ago, when I worked for the Navy, I had a run-in with Customs, where I was in charge of shipping government-owned computer equipment from a Canadian software developer back to the US. Due to a mix up, Customs wanted duties from me on $128K worth of goods (the duty was $8K)! Their paperwork said essentially “pay up now, file any protests (5 copies of it) later.” I didn’t pay up, since this was the government changing the government duties. While our lawyer was trying to straighten it all out, they sent me a notice of penalty that they wanted $136K! I asked around, and the next step is that they would have sent the Federal Marshalls out to padlock and barricade the building (regardless of the fact that it was a federal building)!

It never came to that, and I got it all straightened out, but a few months later I got married, and we took our honeymoon in - you guessed it - Canada. I went armed with a file 1.5 inches thick, along with every phone number I could think of, just in case Customs asked for their money when I returned. It didn’t happen.

So I’d write your Congressperson and not sweat about it.

I heard about an Englishman (no hint of an urban legend here, folks!) who was asked to fill in a form including the statement ‘I promise not to overthrow the Government of the United States’. He wrote ‘sole purpose of visit’.

I think he’s still in customs…

In the bathtub of history, the truth is harder to hold than the soap… (Pratchett)

And another saying… “There’s a fine line between a dozen customs agents waiting for a bribe, and a dozen customs agents waiting for a bribe so they can throw you in jail.”

It’s a long way to heaven, but only three short steps to hell.

It may be drifting a bit OT, but I’m wondering about the accountability of a related agency (at least in terms of function): the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Has anyone else been following recent newspaper columns about draconian INS practices? Anyone have an opinion?


I’m actually handling visas and green cards at my company for several Japanese workers from the parent company, as well as several other foreigners hired one way or another (of whom I’m one).

We pay a flat rate to our lawyers for visas and hourly for green cards. There’s never any real question of the visas being approved; it’s just faster and probably cheaper to have experienced lawyers fill out all the paperwork correctly (about $3000, if I recall correctly). The green card process is much more involved, and typically runs around $10 large.

In all cases, it’s only the paperwork that seems draconian. However, we’re a manufacturer hiring college graduates or technical specialists. I imagine that it’s a lot different if you’re a Mexican laborer.

Never attribute to an -ism anything more easily explained by common, human stupidity.

You may think this is ridiculous now but do you realize how many would-be terrorists the government catches in this way?

How many times have you heard the following at customs:

Agent: Are you planning to overthrow the US government?

Bearded man of arabic descent: Yes. I mean No! Doh!

I assure you, it happens several times a day. This practice was actually invented during the cold war. (Are you a Russian spy? Nyet. I mean No! AAAAAAAARGH!)

Hansel, as an example of draconian, I’m referring tothis case of imprisonment based on secret evidence. I’ve also read that US immigration laws have become extremely harsh since 1994, with cases of “expeditious” deportations of long-term residents on the basis of relatively minor run-ins with the law.


Well, you need to split off the Customs behavior towards you, which by your account seems pretty straightforward, and to the broker/freight forwarder. The “movers” are supposed to help you follow the rules, and declare everything in your household goods, since they know the law for sure… So Customs is probably a bit upset that they seem to be moving goods for their customers and taking a cavalier attitude towards legal requirements [unbeknownst to you, unless you had instructed the moving company not to report the wine, or hidden it]. Look at it this way… next time, the movers will be lazy, and ship guns, or explosives, or whatever…

When I had a crummy run-in with Customs I asked my lawyer about them. His response?
Customs is a law unto themselves. Save your breath (and ink).

When I returned from living in Scotland, I had several bottles of Lagavulin that I was intending to bring back in my household goods. My shipping agent said flatly, “NO”. They said that they were tired of dealing with U.S. Customs when it comes to the import of alcohol and that if I wanted to bring in the Scotch, then I had to pay extra for their trouble, or hand carry it. I don’t know what the issue is, precisely, but Customs seems to have a thing about alcohol, at least if it’s more than a bottle or two.

Well, everything was properly documented by the shipping company (and I spent about 45 minutes copying information from the 30 labels to their forms) but it seems that it is just that US Customs has decided to make it extremely difficult to import alcohol Any idea why? Or is it just because they can.

I tend to agree with the comment about “saving my ink”. I mean, I think I have a valid reason to complain but I don’t want to get “strip-searched” as punishment every time I come into the US because I filed a complaint against one of their fellow US Customs buddies!

(snapping on her rubber glove) Not even if **I’m **the one doing the strip search, Powers?

Leslie Irish Evans

I had an Ex whose father worked for the RCMP in Canada. Everyonce in a while he would get a call from Canada customs to come down to the border (Emerson Manitoba going into North Dakota) and search a car (he was very good at what he does). Canada customs has the power to pull you over, search your car by taking it apart and are not obligated in anyway to put it back together…I think these jokers have way too much power. Of course now my name is being scribbled (no pun intended) on a sheet that will ensure the next time I saunter through customs I recieve that body cavity search that I deserve. Sigh!

There are only two things that are infinite…the Universe and Man’s stupidity…I’m not sure about the Universe though.

Doug Bowe got it right: Customs and INS are not subject to the same rules as the rest of the government. The reason being that most of the government deals with people and things inside the United States, where in theory we enjoy certain freedoms and protections. Customs and INS deal with people and things that have not yet entered the United States, and thus are not under the jurisdiction of our laws, constitution, etc.

And the immigration lawyers I have dealt with agree with the assessment that the INS is draconian, capricious, difficult, etc.

OH BEHAVE!!! LOL, baby! :slight_smile: