After a couple of weeks on vacation in Europe, E.W., a reader from Massachusetts, was ready to return home. He got a car to the airport and made his way through security with plenty of time to spare before his flight took off. He'd hoped to spend a few of the remaining Euros he had on gifts for friends and family back home.
In addition to a few souvenirs and several boxes of Toblerone chocolate, E.W. bought a small bottle of liquor for a neighbor who was having a party a few days after E.W. got home. At the register, the cashier asked for a copy of E.W.'s boarding pass each time he made a purchase. She sealed up the bottle of liquor in a plastic bag that she then placed in another shopping bag.
On the plane, the flight attendant passed out forms for U.S. citizens to fill out about their trip to indicate any purchases they were bringing back into the country. E.W. filled out the form and tucked it into his passport so he could give it to a U.S. Customs officer when he arrived in Massachusetts, after a long night's flight. He indicated on the form what he had purchased and how much he had spent.
Groggy from the flight and not yet adjusted to the time difference between where he'd been and where he was now, E.W. stepped up the Customs officer and presented his passport along with the form he'd filled out on the plane. The Customs officer looked E.W. over, looked his passport over, and then asked a few questions, including, "Did you purchase any liquor?"
While he'd indicated on his forms that he'd made purchases, E.W. answered "no" without thinking anything about it. The Customs officer stamped his passport and sent E.W. on his way. It was only as he was board a bus home that E.W. realized he was indeed carrying in his backpack a small bottle of liquor he'd purchased.
Now, E.W. wonders if he's in trouble because he answered incorrectly. "Should I do something to correct my error?" he asks.
I'm not a lawyer and have no expertise in Customs law, but it wasn't right to answer the Customs officer incorrectly and I suspect there can be significant penalties for doing so. But E.W. had indicated his purchases on his forms so he clearly wasn't trying to hide anything. If the Customs officer had asked to check E.W.'s backpack, I suspect the request would have awoken his memory about the small bottle residing there. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website, the U.S. permits its citizens to bring a bottle of wine or liquor home without incurring any duty or tax, so E.W. was not violating any laws by bringing the bottle into the country. (Canada's Border Services Agency has a similar provision for its citizens.)
The right thing would have been to tell the Customs officer about the purchase. But as long as he indicated the purchase on his form, now that he is home, it doesn't seem necessary for E.W. to call U.S. Customs to come clean. I suspect it's a mistake he will never make again.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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