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The criminal offense of bringing into, or removing from, a country those items that are prohibited or upon which customs or excise duties have not been paid.

Smuggling is the secret movement of goods across national borders to avoid Customs Duties or import or export restrictions. It typically occurs when either the customs duties are high enough to allow a smuggler to make a large profit on the clandestine goods or when there is a strong demand for prohibited goods, such as narcotics or weapons. The United States polices smuggling through various federal agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Federal law prohibits the importation of a number of items that are injurious to public health or welfare, including diseased plants or animals, obscene films and magazines, and illegal narcotics. Importation of certain items is prohibited for economic or political purposes. For example, the United States bans trade with Cuba, which means that Cuban cigars may not be legally imported. This restriction inevitably results in the smuggling of Cuban cigars into the United States. Federal law also bans the export of military weapons or items related to the national defense without an export permit.

In addition, federal law prohibits the importation of goods on which required customs or excise duties have not been paid. Such duties are fixed by federal law to raise revenue and to influence commerce.

Travelers at international borders can properly be stopped by customs agents, required to identify themselves, and asked to submit to a search. To combat smuggling, customs agents have the authority to search an individual and his baggage or any packages or containers sent into the country. Within the United States, police cannot conduct searches unless they have a warrant, Probable Cause to suspect unlawful activity, or the consent of the individual being searched. Such requirements do not apply to border searches. Customs agents have a right to search anyone at a border for no reason at all, although they ordinarily only conduct extensive and thorough searches of individuals who arouse suspicion. By the late 1990s, new technology, including x-ray machines that examine commercial vehicles, had been installed by the Border Patrol at border stations in the Southwest. The DEA has also enhanced its technology for combating smuggling in the Southwest through Wiretapping of drug cartel members. In addition, law enforcement agencies have developed "drug courier profiles" that help customs agents identify and question individuals who are likely to be carriers of narcotics.

Smugglers use two methods to move goods. One is to move cargoes undetected across borders. Smugglers move illegal narcotics from Mexico into remote areas of the Southwest United States using airplanes, trucks, and human "mules." These "mules" walk across an isolated region of the Mexico-U.S. border with backpacks full of illegal narcotics.

The other method is one of concealment. For example, a smuggler may hide illegal narcotics in unlikely places on ships or cars, in baggage or cargo, or on a person. Some drug couriers swallow containers of narcotics to avoid detection of the drugs if searched.

In the event that a traveler possesses anything that he or she did not declare to customs inspectors, or any prohibited items, the traveler can be compelled to pay the required duties, plus penalties, and can also be arrested. Customs agents can seize the illegal goods.

Federal law imposes harsh sanctions for the offense of smuggling. An individual can be convicted merely for having illegal goods in his or her possession if she or he fails to adequately explain their presence. Anyone who is guilty of knowingly smuggling any goods that are prohibited by law or that should have come through customs, or who receives, buys, sells, transports, or aids in the commission of one of these acts can be charged with a felony and can also be assessed civil penalties. The merchandise itself, as well as any vessel or vehicle used to transport it, can be forfeited to the United States under Forfeiture proceedings.

Further readings

Drug Enforcement Administration. Available online at <> (accessed August 12, 2003).

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2000. National Drug Control Strategy: 2000 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: GPO.


Drugs and Narcotics; Search and Seizure.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

SMUGGLING. The fraudulent taking into a country, or out of it, merchandise which is lawfully prohibited. Bac. Ab. h.t.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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