Individuals or businesses that open sealed cargo containers prior to their inspection by customs officers could soon face fines of $100,000 upon conviction.
The fine, proposed as part of an amendment to the Customs Law, would raise the current fine of $1,000 for opening sealed containers by 100-fold. It seeks to eliminate what’s been a continuous problem for customs during the past 15 years, according to customs officials.
The proposal is due to come before the Legislative Assembly as early as next month.
According to Customs Collector Carlon Powery, individual containers shipped to the Cayman Islands are often sent to the business property or even the homeowner’s residence – partly because of available space issues and partly to facilitate business operations. Often those containers are taped off or even locked prior to customs officers arriving on the property to inspect the cargo and collect appropriate duty for the items.
Customs officers will sometimes arrive to conduct the inspection and find the containers have been opened, Mr. Powery said.
“We have no means of knowing whether anything has been removed,” Mr. Powery said, adding customs does receive cargo manifests, but those documents don’t always list exactly what is in the container.
Given the relatively low current fine for breaking the cargo container seals, the customs collector said it is often more profitable for a company or resident to break the law and pay the $1,000 fine, rather than pay thousands of dollars more in duty on items that may have been removed.
Also, Mr. Powery said if any contraband was within the container it could easily be removed without much cost or risk to the receiver.
“We’ve not been having any problem with the majority of importers,” he said. “But … there are other people who seek to break the law.”
Only individual containers are shipped off-site, Mr. Powery said. Any consolidated cargo, containers that have items from several individuals or businesses combined are all off-loaded at the customs cargo distribution centre in George Town.
The Customs (Amendment) Bill, 2011, would allow for the $100,000 fine to be levied if “any container in customs charge is opened before the goods have been duly customed and the matter is not explained to the satisfaction of the proper officer”.
Mr. Powery admitted, even at the best of times, customs cannot inspect every cargo container coming into the country via the port or the airport.
To increase officers’ proficiency, a new scanning device was purchased by the Cayman Islands Customs Department that will be able to perform non-intrusive checks of cars and small watercraft, as well as cargo entering the country through the port.
Smiths Detection company announced in late August it had been awarded a contract to supply the Cayman Islands with a cargo inspection X-ray scanner system.
The entire purchase for the contract was more than US$3 million, said Jeff Jackson, assistant customs collector.
That includes not only the larger mobile scanner, but three standard scanners the customs office will place at the airport post office, the port cargo distribution centre and at the customs warehouse.