Federal Crimes Blog

18 U.S.C. § 545 - Smuggling Goods into the United States

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Aug 28, 2023

Smuggling any goods into the United States without following proper procedures for declaring the goods is a crime under 18 U.S. Code 545.

18 U.S.C. § 545 - Smuggling Goods into the United States
It's a federal crime to attempt to smuggle goods into the United States with the intent to defraud.

For example, you could be charged and found guilty under this law if you knowingly and willfully smuggled or introduced any merchandise that should have been invoiced into the United States.

Further, you could also be charged for attempting to smuggle merchandise or making, passing, or trying to pass forged or fraudulent invoices.

To be convicted under 18 U.S.C. 545, a federal prosecutor has to prove that you acted willfully to bring in items or present fake documents to customs and that you intended to defraud the United States. In other words, you could be convicted of this offense if you knew that the material was brought into the United States violating the law.

You could also be charged for fraudulently or knowingly importing any merchandise that violates United States laws or to receive, conceal, buy, sell, or transfer merchandise smuggled into the United States.

Under 18 U.S.C 545, proof of possession of smuggled goods is sufficient to be found guilty of violating the law unless you can provide a reasonable explanation.

What Does the Law Say?

United States customs laws control the importation of goods and impose taxes called "duties" to protect the economy and the environment. The United States Customs and Border Patrol Protection Agency (CBP) imposes duties on items entering the country.

United States Customs and Border Patrol Protection Agency (CBP)
Any person that violates federal laws on smuggling goods could face civil and criminal penalties.

Title 18, Section 545 of the U.S. Code says, “Whoever knowingly and willfully, with intent to defraud the United States, smuggles, or clandestinely introduces or attempts to smuggle or clandestinely introduce into the United States any merchandise which should have been invoiced, or makes out or passes, or attempts to pass, through the customhouse any false, forged, or fraudulent invoice, or other document or paper; or

Whoever fraudulently or knowingly imports or brings into the United States any merchandise contrary to law or receives, conceals, buys, sells, or in any manner facilitates the transportation, concealment, or sale of such merchandise after importation, knowing the same to have been imported or brought into the United States contrary to law, shall be….”

These import and export regulations impose financial costs on anyone engaged in international trade, which incentivizes avoiding import and export restrictions by the following:

  • Evading examination of shipments, or
  • Presenting false documents.

Anyone who violates federal laws on smuggling goods could face civil and criminal penalties.  There are also related customs laws, such as false declarations.

What Factors Must Be Proven for a Conviction?  

To be found guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. 545, the government must be able to prove all the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, including that you did the following:

  • Knowingly smuggled merchandise into the U.S. without declaring it; or
  • Attempted to smuggle unauthorized merchandise;
  • Knew the merchandise should have been declared for invoicing; and
  • Acted willfully with intent to defraud the United States.

You could also be found guilty if you present a false, fraudulent, or forged invoice to evade import restrictions.

If you knew the goods were unlawfully smuggled and received, bought, or assisted in their introduction into commerce, it's considered smuggling.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 27 Customs has several federal statutes that are related to 18 U.S.C. 545 smuggling goods into the United States, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 541 – Entry of goods falsely classified;
  • 18 U.S.C. 542 – Entry of goods by making false statements;
  • 18 U.S.C. 543 – Entry of goods by paying less than the legal duty;
  • 18 U.S.C. 544 – Relanding of goods;
  • 18 U.S.C. 546 – Smuggling goods into foreign countries;
  • 18 U.S.C. 547 – Depositing goods in buildings near the boundary;
  • 18 U.S.C. 548 – Removing or repacking goods in warehouses;
  • 18 U.S.C. 549 – Removing goods from customs custody; breaking seals;
  • 18 U.S.C. 550 – False claims to get a duty refunded;
  • 18 U.S.C. 551 – Concealing or destroying invoices or other papers;
  • 18 U.S.C. 552 – Officers aiding importation of obscene articles;
  • 18 U.S.C. 553 – Import or export of stolen vehicles or equipment;
  • 18 U.S.C. 554 – Smuggling goods from the United States;
  • 18 U.S.C. 555 – Border tunnels and passages.

What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 545?

Suppose you are convicted of violating this federal law. In that case, you are facing the following penalties:

  • The maximum penalty is 20 years in federal prison and fines;
  • Recovered merchandise shall be forfeited to the United States

The actual sentence received will depend on the application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which compare specific offense characteristics with your criminal history. 

Further, the sentencing judge has substantial discretion to impose a sentence and will be guided by the equitable factors contained in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a), which include your characteristics and the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities between similarly situated defendants around the country.

What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 545?

Our federal criminal defense lawyers can use different strategies to fight charges of smuggling goods. As noted, a prosecutor must prove that you made an intentional effort to evade customs requirements or present false invoices.

Defenses for Smuggling Goods into the United States
Contact our criminal defense law firm for help.

Maybe we can persuade the government that insufficient evidence exists to secure a conviction. Perhaps during all the international trade transactions, many goods were imported or exported, making tracking them challenging.

Maybe we can show there were honest errors but not a specific intent to defraud the United States. The government must prove there was intent within the invoices to smuggle goods rather than an understandable oversight by the merchant involved in the trade. Even if a shipment was seized for alleged smuggling, it does not automatically mean a federal prosecution will follow.   

Maybe we can negotiate with the United States Attorney's Office to avoid a formal indictment. Even if a filing is inevitable because guilt is not in doubt, we might be able to negotiate a favorable plea agreement.

For a free case review of all the case details and legal options, you can contact our law firm by phone or via the contact form. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.

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