Smoking Kills (and you could lose your boat too)

Published on May 21st, 2013

Jeff Southworth and a buddy were sailing into Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, in January when local police intercepted Southworth’s 46-foot sailboat, the Janice Ann, a few miles offshore. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on the scene ordered Southworth to dock and searched the vessel.

When they discovered what was stowed below deck, they led Southworth away in handcuffs.

Why? Customs officers found 33 boxes of cigars. And for that, the U.S. government intends to seize the Janice Ann, which CBP values at $90,000. “I think my civil liberties have been completely walked over,” Southworth, a retired Ford Motor Company engineer, said at the time.

President John F. Kennedy enacted the Cuban embargo in an attempt to hasten the demise of that country’s communist regime. Individuals can face civil and criminal penalties, including jail time for serious violations of the embargo. Southworth feared he would lose his boat because the authorities had decided to pursue civil asset forfeiture.

Unlike with criminal forfeiture, where prosecutors target assets after a criminal conviction, civil forfeiture allows prosecutors to seize Southworth’s property without proving he committed a crime. The government doesn’t even have to charge him with one. Instead, the government puts the asset itself on trial. To win, prosecutors must convince a judge that a preponderance of the evidence suggests the Janice Ann was an instrument of illegal activity.

Southworth maintained his cigars were not Cuban: He says they were cheap, Dominican-made knockoffs he bought for friends as novelty gifts. In an interview with The Daily Caller, Southworth said customs agents told him during the search that a cigar expert at their office could confirm that his cigars were not Cuban. When he arrived at the CBP office on Jan. 3, however, no expert appeared. Read more here.

Over four months later, with the boat still in the possession of the feds, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security offered on May 13 to return the boat in exchange for a hold-harmless agreement sparing Customs from any demand for attorneys’ fees, damages or other relief. If the deal is not accepted within 30 days, the government will pursue full title to the boat. Read more here.

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