Cayman’s duty to modernize

On any given day, scores of Grand Cayman residents board flights at Owen Roberts International Airport bound for destinations abroad. Some are leaving for vacations or shopping trips; some are going away for medical reasons; others are traveling for business.

It is the year 2014. Most travelers carry with them an electronic device of some sort; many have several. These devices include laptops, notebooks, tablets, iPods and the ubiquitous mobile telephone.

Cayman Islands residents might not realize that before they board their flight, they are instructed – by law – to visit the Customs Department and register every one of the electronic devices with which they intend to travel. Failure to do so could mean, upon their return to the Cayman Islands, they have to pay import duty on the unregistered devices unless they can prove they either bought the items here or paid import duty on them previously.

Many residents fail to register their electronic devices prior to leaving Cayman, and most return without an issue. However, enforcement of Customs Law regulations is at the discretion of individual customs officers and, as with anything left to the discretion of individuals, is open to a degree of subjectivity or outright abuse.

If a particular customs officer is having a bad day or just takes a disliking to a returning visitor, the law allows, in the absence of proof, for that officer to impose duty on or confiscate undeclared articles brought into the country.

Regarding confiscation, can anyone imagine a Cayman attorney or accountant, whose laptop computer, no doubt, contains gigabytes of confidential client information, leaving that device in the hands of a customs officer? A wedding dress, maybe; a personal computer, never.

The Collector of Customs points out that this policy is nothing new, that it has been in force for more than 30 years. However, 30 years ago, the kinds of portable electronic devices that people travel with today didn’t exist, and the law, when written, couldn’t have foretold that nearly everyone would travel with these devices.

We are not naïve. We fully understand that many Cayman residents purchase electronic goods offshore and don’t declare them upon their return. Yes, in these instances, the government loses revenue, but any calculation must take into consideration the cost, and practicality, of enforcement vs. the revenue received.

In the case of portable electronic devices, we believe Cayman should re-examine its 30-year-old statute and designate these devices as duty-free (joining the ranks of cameras, eyeglasses, coffee and so many other exempted items). This single move will show that the Cayman Islands embraces technology and recognizes its importance to our two key industries – financial services and tourism.
Being innovative in this way would also protect against the possible public relations disaster that predictably will occur if a customs officer decides to arbitrarily enforce an unenforceable law.

To go further, we would argue that no law should exist in Cayman’s legal code that 1) is unenforceable, or 2) might be enforceable but that officers have no intention of enforcing consistently and equitably.

Whenever laws are enacted, but enforced only occasionally or selectively, it detracts from the respect that all laws deserve. Unfortunately, our code is replete with such legal detritus, and a good housecleaning is in order.

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