U.S. Customs and Border Protection (U.S. Customs or CBP) seizes and forfeits hundreds of millions of dollars of merchandise every year. The IRS, DEA, U.S. Postal Service, and other Federal agencies also have the legal authority to seize and forfeit merchandise that were allegedly used illegally or were proceeds of alleged illegal activity, but U.S. Customs administrative and judicial forfeiture procedures are unique. The answer is that seizures by U.S. Customs typically are not included within the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA).
The difference between a seizure under CAFRA’s rules under 18 U.S.C. 983 – The General Rules for Civil Forfeitures, and the U.S. Customs rules under the Tariff Act of 1930 and the Supplemental Rules of Admiralty, is significant. These significant differences are often misunderstood, including by attorneys who do not regularly practice in seizure and forfeiture matters. Under CAFRA, the U.S. Government must send an administrative seizure notice to affected persons within 60 days of the seizure, but for U.S. Customs cases, there is no such requirement. In fact, unfortunately, U.S. Customs often takes 90 to days to issue the Seizure Notice letter to affected parties such as the owner of the seized merchandise. Under CAFRA, a claimant has 35 days from the date of the notice of seizure to file its administrative claim or request judicial forfeiture. For U.S. Customs cases, the claimant must file a Petition within 30 days of the seizure notice or, if seeking judicial review of the seizure, file a claim and cost bond equal to 10% of the value of the seized merchandise, up to a maximum of $5,000. In CAFRA cases, no court bond is required. Once in Federal Court, for CAFRA cases, the U.S. Government’s burden of proof is by the preponderance of the evidence. In U.S. Customs cases, the Government has a lower burden of proof by establishing probable cause for the seizure, and then the burden shifts to the claimant to establish, by the preponderance of the evidence, that the property may not be forfeited.
There are other numerous differences, a few of which are set forth in a comparison chart. One big difference is that in U.S. Customs cases, a claimant may file an administrative Petition with U.S. Customs seeking to get the seized merchandise released, and if unsuccessful, then go to Court. In non-U.S. Customs cases, a claimant who chooses to file a Petition with the Federal agency and loses cannot then seek relief in Federal Court. In general, filing a Petition with U.S. Customs or other Federal agency is the preferred alternative because it is often (1) faster, (2) less expensive, and (3) gives the greatest chance of success in getting the merchandise released from seizure.