Customs Violation Laws

By , J.D.

Customs laws and regulations apply anytime you enter or leave the country, or send or receive goods that do the same. Customs laws are federal laws, and they apply regardless of what state you're in, or how or where you enter or leave the country. Customs laws can provide for both civil and criminal penalties for violations, though this article focuses primarily on criminal violations.


A wide variety of laws and government regulations apply when people or objects enter or leave the country. For example, various federal agencies establish regulations about food or agricultural products, including the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture. These agencies can limit what can leave or enter the country, and all these regulations are considered customs restrictions. Additionally, laws that prohibit the possession of illegal drugs can also be considered customs laws because they also apply to travelers. Though customs laws and regulations can change frequently, common violations occur in one of several areas.

  • False declarations. Most people encounter customs provisions when they enter the country after an international vacation or business trip. When returning to the country, or entering it for the first time, a person must declare the nature and value of any goods he or she has brought along. For example, if you buy gifts for your family while overseas you must declare these upon returning to the country. If you intentionally leave out items, misrepresent their value, or make other false declarations, this can lead to criminal charges. You can also incur criminal charges if you fail to disclose when you enter or leave the country with more than $10,000 worth of currency.
  • Exporting violations. A wide variety of products are subject to export limitations and restrictions. Some of these restrictions require you to first obtain an export license before you can legally ship the materials out of the country, while others place restrictions on exports based on the nature of the items, who is receiving them, and what the items' purposes are. For example, it's a customs violation to attempt to export weapons, currency, or other products to terrorist groups, or to ship goods to Iran.
  • Importing violations. Importing goods into the country, much like bringing personal items in with you when you travel, is also subject to specific declarations and notifications. All imports are subject to import taxes, known as duties. Trying to conceal the nature of the imports, their origin, value, or nature in an attempt to evade import duties can also be a crime. Individuals can violate importation duties when, for example, they attempt to bring in large amounts of alcohol or tobacco products without paying the required duty.
  • Smuggling. Various state and federal laws regulate the possession of specific types of items, such as drugs or weapons. Attempting to bring prohibited items into the country, or bringing people in without going through customs procedures, is known as smuggling. Smuggling can involve a number of specific crimes, depending on the nature of the items smuggled and the actions of those involved.


Violating customs laws can result in significant penalties, both for an individual and any organization involved in the violation. Customs penalties vary depending on the particulars of the violation, but may include civil or criminal penalties. Criminal penalties differ depending on the nature of the crime you're convicted of, but typically include several possible punishments.

  • Fines. Criminal fines for customs violation can be significant. A single criminal act can result in fines of anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a million dollars or more.
  • Prison. Prison sentences are possible for some customs violations, especially those that involve smuggling. For example, making a false declaration when entering the country can lead to a sentence of up to two years in prison, while violating some export restrictions can result in a 10 year prison sentence per offense.
  • Probation. Customs violations can also lead to probation sentences. A person sentenced to probation must serve at least a 12 month sentence, though possibly much longer, during which time he or she must comply with a variety of court imposed rules. These rules limit what the probationer can do, such as requiring the person to report to a probation officer, asking the officer's permission to move or leave the country, staying out of any more trouble with the law, and paying all fines and court costs.

Speak With an Attorney

Customs violations can quickly become a very serious matter. Anyone facing an investigation for a customs violation, or who has been charged with a violation, should consult a local attorney as soon as possible. Customs regulations can be very complicated and change quickly, and many people who are accused of a violation may not know that their behavior was illegal. You should never make any statement to investigators or take any actions in your customs violations case without first speaking to an experienced attorney. A local defense attorney who regularly practices in federal court is the only person who can provide you with legal advice and assistance based on experience with the local courts and prosecutors, as well as with customs laws and regulations.

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