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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Seizure of Mexican Figurine Prompts Question of CBP's Legal Authority

United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced in a new(s) release on July 28, 2011 that it seized a Pre-Columbian artifact en route from Indiana to British Columbia. A buyer in Canada reportedly purchased the small orange Nayarit figure of a woman through an auction, and CBP agents intercepted the package in April during routine checks at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. CBP said that the shipment was "manifested as containing an artifact."

CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) had the Chicago Field Museum examine the object, concluding it "to be an authentic Pre-Columbian artifact of West Mexico dating to the early first millennium AD." The Consulate General of Mexico, meanwhile, claimed that the object was unlawfully exported from that country.

CBP seized the four inch tall Nayarit figurine under Title 19, Chapter 14 of the customs laws. The statute is commonly referred to as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), meant to implement the well-known 1970 UNESCO Convention that covers cultural property. Federal agents in Chicago took the ancient Mexican artifact into their possession under Section 2609 of the CPIA, which permits seizure of protected cultural artifacts covered by import regulations promulgated under section 2606 (as well as stolen objects that had been documented in the institutional collection of a state party to the convention). Import restrictions enacted under Section 2606 result when the United States enters into an agreement with another nation under the authority of the CPIA. Many readers of this blog are familiar with the CPIA process and know that several nations have bilateral agreements with the United States pursuant to CPIA. Mexico, however, is not one of those nations.

So how can CBP take away an ancient Mexican cultural object from its possessor by using the CPIA? I called CPB to find out. The agency's representatives were polite and responsive to calls, but the replies were not helpful. A CBP Associate Chief Counsel said that "we don't comment on anything like this," adding that "we limit any of our comments about the law and our interpretation on the law to our client itself, which is, of course, the agency." Such a closed response from a government agency that actively sought public attention to this seizure and freely declared the legal basis for the seizure is unsatisfactory. CBP issued a public press release announcing the taking of the Nayarit figurine and broadcasted that "[t]he artifact will be returned to the Mexican government in an upcoming CBP and ICE-HSI repatriation ceremony." And while the agency claims the matter is under investigation, CBP's desire to return potential evidence to Mexico, coupled with its early public release of information relevant to the case, does not signal a meaningful commitment to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

We are left to speculate about what CBP may have been thinking when it seized the object. Federal officials could not have seized the Mexican artifact under a legal theory involving the National Stolen Property Act because the NSPA requires an item to have a value of $5000 or more before it is considered stolen under that law. The Mexican artifact was purchased at auction for $550, far less than $5000. So CBP had to look for other legal authority to take the artifact into custody.

Perhaps they erringly looked to a treaty for legal authority. The United States and Mexico entered into a Treaty of Cooperation on March 24, 1971, which provides for the recovery and return of stolen archaeological, historical, and cultural properties. The treaty, which is in force today, permits the United States "to employ the legal means at its disposal to recover and return from its territory stolen archaeological, historical and cultural properties that are removed after the date of entry into force of the Treaty from the territory of the requesting Party." But this agreement was not enacted into law under the terms of the CPIA, meaning there are no import restrictions on Mexican cultural property that derive from Section 2606 of the CPIA to justify a Section 2609 seizure of the Nayarit figurine by CBP.

So what exactly was CPB's legal authority to seize the Nayarit figurine? We have no explanation about why a Section 2609 seizure was the proper legal basis to take away the ancient Mexican artifact.

Federal officials must take great care when using unexplained interpretations of the law to promote seizures of property. While CBP may be commended for taking action to detect trafficked cultural heritage, federal authorities should exercise their authority in a reasonable, intelligent, and open fashion. No citizen should be left guessing about how exactly he or she can comply with the law so as to avoid the loss of property. Clear and reasonable applications of the customs laws, and plain explanations to back them, can build public support for America's effort to protect and secure at-risk cultural property. By contrast, offering questionable or undisclosed legal positions in cases where property may be seized—particularly in cases involving potentially innocent possessors—does little to garner confidence in public authorities.

Photo: Chicago CBP