Criminal Fruit

People arriving or departing from airports in the United States on international flights have often complained of being made to feel like criminals by the customs and security personnel.

Sometimes it’s no more than a feeling. The various checks can go smoothly and efficiently, yet one senses a certain hostility in the air. Having to remove one’s hat and shoes and belt and pass through a metal detector, having bags x-rayed or opened and searched, being cordoned off in little Ellis Islands of interrogation and scrutiny, are enough to make you feel like somebody nominated you for a place on Homeland Security’s list of suspected terrorists.

But most people are willing to rationalize these indignities as the price to pay for security in the post-9/11 era. We submit to them for our own good and for general safety.

What rankles is the comportment of those who are placed in charge of our own good. It’s the glare in the eye or the tone of voice of some of those (though certainly not all) who usher us in and out that imparts a totalitarian atmosphere to the whole process.

But these are intangibles, hard to pin down. They can also be rationalized: It’s a tough, repetitive job, a lot of responsibility at relatively low pay. Then too they must endure the complaints and disdain of passengers who are disinclined to accept the necessity of security. Not every guard is up to the challenge of giving a smile and a thank you when confronted with the less-than-appreciative attitude of thousands of people day after day.

Yet there are times when it’s clearly more than just a feeling that officialdom is meeting us less than halfway.

For example, take the case this week of a Colorado woman who was slapped with a $500 fine from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for saving a free apple she received as a snack from Delta Air Lines on her way back to the United States from Paris.

As she recounted to a news agency, flight attendants handed out apples in plastic bags as a gift as the flight drew to an end. She stowed the fruit in her carry-on to save for when she was hungry during the second leg of her trip.

At U.S. Customs, she was selected for a random search, and an agent found the apple. After explaining where the apple came from (it was still in the plastic bag with Delta’s logo on it), she asked innocently if she could throw it away or eat it. The answer was no — and she was informed of a $500 fine for carrying in undeclared fruit. She’s also concerned about possibly losing her Global Entry Status, which allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to have expedited clearance into the United States.

She took her story to the media and plans to take the case to court as well. “It’s really unfortunate someone has to go through that and be treated like a criminal over a piece of fruit,” she said.

For its part, CBP was unrepentant. A spokesperson declared stiffly in response to a request for comment that “all agricultural items must be declared.”

The apple smuggler may consider herself fortunate that she was not clobbered with the maximum penalty of “$1,000 per first-time offense for non-commercial quantities,” as the spokesperson pointed out.

Delta wrapped itself in the sanctimony of regulatory compliance: “We encourage customers to adhere to U.S. Customs and Border Protection policies and requirements.”

There is no question that CBP could have handled this minor infraction differently, especially since the airline may have been the real culprit, failing to remind passengers that they have to declare the apples, as the woman is also arguing. Not to mention the fact that fruits given out on planes are usually admissible, as long as they are declared.

In fact, the common procedure is simply to confiscate the undeclared item and throw it away. The $500 fine was, essentially, arbitrary.

Why such a draconian response?

The give-and-take, according to the passenger, might provide the answer:

“He had asked me if my trip to France was expensive, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t really get why he was asking that question, and then he said, ‘It’s about to get a lot more expensive after I charge you $500.’”

You don’t need a language detector to sense a certain smugness in the wielding of power over the affluent returnee from the City of Light.

The decent thing would be for Customs to rescind or reduce the penalty in light of mitigating circumstances. They need not fear a fatal lessening of deterrence that will open the floodgates to mountains of undeclared apples in the future. They got their message across.

Having said that, it should also be borne in mind that given the attitudinal headwinds at ports of entry, it’s unlikely that things will change anytime soon.

“You must declare all food products. Failure to declare food products can result in up to $10,000 in fines and penalties,” says the CBP website.

Flyers beware.