Cross The Border, Lose Your Bentley; The Lacey Act Applies To Automobiles, Too
The music world is going nuts over the Federal Government’s second major raid of Gibson Guitars in just two years. Agents stopped production at Gibson’s facilities and confiscated massive quantities of wood, unfinished guitars, and finished products. This article covers the basics, including Gibson owner Henry Juszkiewicz’s decision to defy the federal government and continue shipping finished guitars to retailers after the raid.
Why would the government use armed agents to attack one of the few major manufacturers of anything remaining in the United States? The political motivations for such an action are outside the scope of this article, but the justification for the action is the Lacey Act, which regulates the importation of plants, animals, and products thereof into the United States. The Lacey Act effectively permits wooden musical instruments to be seized indefinitely, without compensation, and places the burden of proof on the owner, not the government. Do you own an $11,000 2011 Gibson Eric Clapton Edition Les Paul? Want to take it to Canada and back? You’d better be prepared to document the source of all materials to the government’s satisfaction upon your return, or you could lose it indefinitely. If you thinking documenting that is tough, what if you’re ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons returning from an overseas tour with your real 1959 sunburst Les Paul, for which you’ve already turned down at least one $5,000,000 offer? Good luck documenting the wood from a fifty-two-year-old guitar.
Very few TTAC readers travel with guitars, particularly across the country’s borders, so I don’t expect this to worry you personally. If, on the other hand, you want to drive across the Canadian or Mexican border in your own car — or even a rental — consider this: The same law that allows the Feds to raid American manufacturers and seize the possessions of Americans without compensation applies to cars, too.
Check out some sources: here and here. Simply possessing the timber product can make you a felon, regardless of whether or not you were involved in the harvesting, were the original importer, or had received any information regarding the source of the timber product. Here’s an example. Let’s say you are driving a Bentley Flying Spur with a rosewood interior. Importation of Brazilian rosewood is a felony under the Lacey Act. Do you know where the rosewood in your Spur came from? Can you prove it? In Gibson’s case, it was Indian rosewood that supposedly caused the bust; although the importation of Indian rosewood is legal, it has to be finished and prepared to certain standards in India. If raw Indian rosewood is sent to Bentley for finishing into dashboards — and make no mistake, that is how it is done — it may not break any British laws, but it breaks an American one, and you are now a convicted felon for visiting the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and coming back.
I took both of my Phaetons to Canada and back several times. My 2005 had chestnut wood which supposedly came from America, but my 2006 had eucalyptus. I have no idea whether that eucalyptus was harvested legally. What if my car had been seized at the border? How would I have been able to prove that the wood was legitimately harvested according to the rules of whatever country it came from?
The sheer number of wood-interior automobiles (leather, too, is covered under the Lacey Act, as is any animal-or-plant-derived seating, such as wool or cotton) crossing the border every day means that the likelihood of such a seizure is small. Is it small enough to risk losing your car just because a border agent doesn’t like your reason for being in Canada? Think that’s far-fetched? Ask the woman doing two years in federal prison for accepting lobsters in clear plastic bags how far-fetched it is.
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There are four things that strike me here: 1. The law is written so broadly as to bring uncertainty into the issue of one's own property. The law should be clear so that it is easily understood. This is not. 2. There is no mens rea here -- your property is seized even if you did not intend to break the law or even know that there was a law to break. 3. We are enforcing foreign laws here, as interpreted by U.S. government officials. This means that laws written for whatever reasons by non-democratic and non-rule-of-law regimes (think Russia, Zimbabwe, Burma, most of Africa, and on and on) are enforced on Americans residing in America. 4. Lastly, it does not appear from the Gibson case that the issue is importing rare or prohibited wood. It is not illegal to export the wood here (thus, Indians are allowed to chop down the trees). But, the U.S. government is alleging that it is illegal to important "unfinished" wood. Therefore, what the U.S. government is enforcing is not a law aimed at protecting the environment, but rather at protecting Indian carpentry jobs (which ties back to point 3).