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Federal Import and Export Crimes

If you import or export goods internationally, you're subject to a complex web of laws and regulations ranging from duties requirements to many paperwork obligations.

The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) strictly enforces these laws, and other federal agencies also have a role in enforcement. Businesses must be aware of their obligations under these laws.

Federal Import and Export Defense Lawyer

If you import or export goods internationally, you should be aware that violations, even intentional violations, can result in civil or administrative penalties, federal criminal charges, and prison time.

Some common examples of where you could face charges of an import and export crime include the false classification of goods, illegal goods, importing or exporting goods without paying the fines or dues, transship goods to avoid fines, and smuggling goods. 

A proactive approach is always the best way to avoid legal trouble regarding federal import and export laws. Compliance with the regulations is essential for any business engaged in international trade.

The best way to ensure compliance is with the involvement of an experienced legal defense team—preferably before you find yourself facing violations.

An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help you navigate the complexities of the law and defend you if you're accused of a violation. Let's review this law in greater detail below.

The Complexities of International Trade Laws

Federal import and export laws are defined in Title 18, Chapter 27, Statutes 451-455, United States legal code. The federal government regulates international trade to protect American businesses and consumers and collect revenue in the form of duties and taxes.

The laws governing international trade are complicated, and they're constantly changing, and the penalties for violating these laws can be severe.

In addition, when importing or exporting goods, you must meet compliance rules or face scrutiny from a wide range of federal agencies, such as the CBP, the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and others.

It's essential to understand your obligations regarding paperwork, duties, and reporting before engaging in any international business transactions and be apprised of changes in the law when they occur.

What Are the Types of Trade Violations?

There are numerous ways in which someone could violate international trade laws. Some are easily committed unintentionally, while others require willful intent.

Predictably, unintentional violations are usually subject to lesser penalties like fines, while more serious or deliberate breaches of the law can result in significant prison time. Let's take a closer look at the most common types of violations.

Import Violations

If you fail to meet certain obligations when bringing goods into the country, you could violate the law. The most common violations of these types include:

  • Failing to pay duties. Virtually every import is subject to duties (taxes). If you don't pay the required duties when the goods arrive at the port, you violate the law.
  • Failing to file required paperwork. Businesses must file specific documentation when importing goods, such as entry forms and commercial invoices. If you fail to do so, you could face civil or administrative penalties.
  • Illegally importing restricted or prohibited goods. The federal government places restrictions or outright bans on certain goods for health, safety, national security, etc. If you are accused of importing such goods without the proper permits or licenses, you could face severe penalties, including prison time, if convicted.

Export Violations

The export of goods from the United States is also heavily regulated by federal law. The requirements differ based on various factors, such as what is being exported, how much, and to what destination. The most common violations in this area include:

  • Failing to obtain required export licenses. Before you can export specific types of goods, you must obtain a license from the BIS. If you ship goods without the proper license, you could face civil or criminal penalties.
  • Failing to file required paperwork. Businesses must file specific documentation when exporting goods, such as the Shipper's Export Declaration (SED) form or the Automated Export System (AES). Failure to meet these obligations can result in fines; willfully failing to do so can result in up to 5 years in prison.
  • Exporting restricted goods or exporting them to restricted destinations. The U.S. bans certain exports from going to certain places (e.g., weapons or currency sent to known terrorist organizations). Violating these rules can result in criminal charges and imprisonment.


Smuggling is an attempt to bring prohibited items or persons into the country by bypassing customs or avoiding standard import procedures. If you're accused of smuggling, you could be charged with specific offenses based on what was smuggled, how much, and where. Smuggling convictions can result in serious prison time.

Import and export crimes carry statutory penalties of at least one year of prison time, and many have longer prison sentences. Further, import and export crimes usually involve the forfeiture of any illegally obtained profits or property. Civil charges may also be brought against you in place of or in addition to criminal charges, resulting in additional fines.

What to Do If You're Investigated?

Suspected violations of international trade laws can result in scrutiny by many federal agencies, including the CBP, OFAC, FBI, DEA, the Department of Justice, and others.

Perhaps we could show that you did not violate customs laws as various prohibitions, tariffs, and dues change over time. In other words, these factors may have led to a mistaken charge of a customs law violation.

Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

The import and export laws are complicated and involve many different governmental agencies, offices, and organizations. Thus, perhaps we can show that you did not knowingly violate customs law.

Maybe there was some type of administrative error at some stage in the process. If it can be proven that your violation was unintentional, you have a good chance of avoiding a conviction.

If you find yourself the subject of an investigation by any federal agency related to your compliance, it's essential to take the matter seriously and seek experienced legal help immediately. The sooner you have an attorney on your side, the better your chances of achieving a favorable outcome.

Eisner Gorin LLP are a Los Angeles-based criminal law firm that provides legal representation for people facing federal charges across the United States. You can contact our firm for an initial case review by calling (877) 781-1570 or filling out the contact form.

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Eisner Gorin LLP is committed to answering your questions about Criminal Defense law issues in Los Angeles, California.

We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

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