Customs incident over $1.74 duty heading to Canadian federal court

Posted May 25, 2012, at 6 p.m.

How much liquor you are allowed to bring into Canada

Canadian customs regulations allow Americans entering Canada to bring in one of the following without paying duty:

  • 1.5 liters (50.7 US ounces) of wine, including wine coolers over 0.5 percent alcohol, or
  • 1.14 liters (38.5 US ounces) of liquor, or
  • a total of 1.14 liters (38.5 US ounces) of wine and liquor, or
  • 24 355-milliliter (12 ounce) cans or bottles of beer or ale, including beer coolers over 0.5 percent alcohol (a maximum of 8.5 liters or 287.4 US ounces).

Visitors to Canada may bring in more than the personal allowances of liquor listed above as long as they pay customs and provincial or territorial assessments.

Source: Canadian alcohol import regulations

ST. STEPHEN, New Brunswick — A Massachusetts attorney has been at odds with the Canadian government since last August, when she claims she was “bullied” by a New Brunswick border patrol agent who she wants reprimanded. She also wants her record cleared of any border crossing violation that could affect her career and prevent her from revisiting Canada.

The incident at issue occurred July 27, 2011, when Deborah Butler of Framingham, Mass., was en route with her 79-year-old mother to a family reunion in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia. At the newest “Third Bridge” Canadian border crossing located southwest of downtown Calais off Route 9, Butler declared two “oversized” bottles of Jim Beam bourbon she was bringing to the reunion. She was told she would be required to pay $1.74 in duty. She was given some paperwork and was directed to park her car and wait for a Canadian Border Authority duty collector.

“I was under the impression that the whiskey was duty-free, but we waited,” Butler told The Bangor Daily News in a telephone interview. “We were heading to the car ferry in St. John to do the crossing to Digby, and I was nervous we’d be late. There would have been a $100 fine if we missed our ferry reservation.”

Butler was in a hurry and grew weary of waiting, she said. She drove off, deciding she would pay the $1.74 when she returned through St. Stephen in two weeks.

When Butler returned on Aug. 10, she left her mother in the car and went inside the St. Stephen border crossing headquarters with the duty paperwork and $1.74. She explained she hadn’t paid the duty two weeks ago and wanted to pay it now. That’s when she came nose to nose with Border Agent 20712, a young man whose name she doesn’t know. She refers to him casually as “the bully at the border.”

The Canada Border Services Agency declined Friday to name the agent involved. A transcript of his version of events has been censored to remove his name.

In that transcript the agent claims surveillance video from July 27, when Butler and her mother entered Canada, shows that they did not wait in their car for 10-15 minutes, as they had claimed, but only 59 seconds. When informed of the video footage, Agent 20712 said Butler “drops her head and states that she knew it really wasn’t very long that she waited, and she just (sic) in too much of a hurry.” The agent never touches on his demeanor, which Butler claims was “aggressive.”

“This kid was a bully and a hothead, who I guess wanted to prove himself in front of an older agent who was there,” Butler said. “When I told him I was concerned about the $100 fine if we missed the ferry, he started screaming and said, ‘You’re going to pay a lot more than that when I get through with you.’”

Butler was asked to surrender her passport and her car keys and was told the Mitsubishi Galant would be searched. She later was read her rights but was never subsequently arrested.

“My mother is a cancer survivor and had no idea why two border agents were coming toward the car,” Butler said. “She had no idea what was going on, and this kid was screaming at her, saying things like ‘We’ve been looking for you for two weeks.’ When my mother came inside, she was shaking, and I thought: I’m going to kill my mother. She told them: ‘Call my minister; he’ll tell you I’m a good person.’ It was a nightmare.”

The vehicle search turned up nothing unusual, Bishop said, and she was told that her passport would be returned. She also was told that her car would be seized and that getting it back would cost her $1,000.

“I didn’t have $1,000,” she said. “I finally got the car back with my brother’s credit card, after I called him. My car had nothing to do with this incident, which was about failing to pay $1.74 in duty. The whole thing was very nerve-wracking.”

Upon returning to the United States, Butler submitted a nine-page brief on the incident to Canadian officials and requested that the $1,000 she paid be refunded. She was told it would take a year to make a decision. It almost did.

Butler, 54, received a registered letter last week from the Appeals Division of the Canadian Border Authority, informing her that the $1,000 would be refunded, even though she had violated border crossing regulations.

“Notwithstanding your explanation for the situation, it is clear you left the customs office, and the [car] in question was lawfully subject to seizure and forfeiture,” a letter signed by Senior Program Advisor M. Sears reads in part. The letter also indicates that Butler has 90 days from May 8, 2012, to appeal the ruling to a Canadian federal court.

Butler said Friday she plans to do just that. She now is searching for a Canadian civil rights attorney to take her case. She would also like to find a Canadian or American law school willing to use the incident as a case study that, among other issues, would determine if her civil rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were violated when her car was searched without a warrant.

“I want the charge of running the border removed from my record,” she said. “I am seeking to practice law in [Washington] D.C. and cannot have this on my record. I am African-American and was wearing a ‘MADE IN THE US’ Obama T-shirt when I entered the station. Agent 20712 is Caucasian. Whether he was motivated by racial animus is yet to be determined, but I will argue this in federal court.

“This whole incident could jeopardize my career in public interest law, so I won’t go down without a fight. The incident could also land me in jail if CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] charges me with the infraction.”

Butler also was told by a friend that the “border running” incident may preclude her from entering Canada for a family vacation in July.

Butler has sought help from the office of U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in determining how the border incident might affect her ability to enter Canada in the future. Kerry’s office also has requested that the videotape of what transpired at St. Stephen on Aug. 10, 2011, not be destroyed by Canadian officials.

“While I’m glad they are refunding the $1,000, I think they just want to get rid of me,” Butler said.

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