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On some occasions, when a traveler goes through US customs, there are electronic self-serve kiosks or paper forms with detailed customs questions about what you are carrying (currency, goods, food, etc.), and there are statements warning about penalties for not answering truthfully.

On other occasions, there is none of the above, and no explanatory signs posted, and the customs officer simply asks, "Do you have anything to declare?" (this happened to me recently when traveling from a US territory to the US mainland) so it's not obvious what they are asking, or that there are penalties involved. Suppose somebody should have answered "Yes" but they answered "No" because they didn't understand the question, or they have never travelled before, or they didn't know or didn't remember all of the items that should be declared. In this case, it sounds like ignorance of the law could be a reasonable defense. Is it?

If customs wanted the question to be legally enforceable, in the absence of any accompanying written explanations, shouldn't they say something more like, "Do you have anything to declare under US customs code, section blah blah blah? Not answering truthfully can carry penalties and fines. If you don't understand the question, please ask."

Update:

For those wondering where my customs interaction occurred, it was at the STX airport in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands (a US territory). It's an international airport, but most outbound flights are to the US mainland. Technically, travelers leaving USVI are already in the US, but air travelers leaving the territory have to exit through US customs and immigration. Possibly it's because the USVI's borders are extra-porous so they are monitoring for illegal immigrants, and/or because USVI has certain restrictions and duties for goods going to/from the US mainland.

US Customs and Border Protection in STX used to hand out Customs Declaration forms, so it was easy to understand what to declare. Now they just ask verbally, either in some detail ("Are you carrying any food?") or as a broad question ("Do you have anything to declare?").

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    You're expected to know the law relevant to what you're doing. Besides, if you're not sure of the status of something you declare it. There's no penalty for declaring something that doesn't need to be declared. – Loren Pechtel Jun 25 at 2:49
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    Ignorantia juris non excusat – ignorance of the law excuses not. – Jörg W Mittag Jun 25 at 6:23
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    AFAIK, answering "yes" instead of "no" will not get you in trouble, it will just waste time. – user253751 Jun 25 at 9:19
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    Or "I don't think so, but I do have X and Y and Z" (list items you think might be declarable - tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs, big piles of cash, food or drinks, particularly valuable items) - also should not get you in trouble. – user253751 Jun 25 at 12:25
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    Are you sure this was Customs rather than a USDA agricultural checkpoint? You would normally not clear customs/immigration when coming from a U.S. territory into the U.S. mainland (or vice versa) unless you transited another country on the way. (I ask because the relevant laws will be completely different for customs vs. USDA ag checkpoints, since it's completely different agencies and no international borders are being crossed.) – reirab Jun 25 at 17:09
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The answer has two parts depending on how you get here. Airline answer: Any such question by a CBP officer is merely a last-chance option to supplement the response you gave on the declaration form. The form asks a series of specific questions which are difficult to misunderstand (if you speak English), you say yes or no, and fill in applicable details. If you remember that you put an apple in your luggage, you can verbally amend the declaration. It is not necessary or practical to recite the statutory, regulatory and case law authority to ask these questions. As I recall, the electronic version asks the same questions. All versions of the form that I have encountered over the decades have included the perjury warning. If you had an alternative experience for you did not fill in a customs declaration form, that would be unusual, and a significant failure by the CBP officer(s).

Land-border answer: you are right. In this case (when no customs declaration form is filled out), they rely on every person's obligation to know and comply with the law. You are required to declare the $12,000 cash that you are bringing back, and you cannot plead "I didn't know I had to declare that cash".

You can always make suggestions for service-improvement to the Dept. of Homeland Security.

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    There are experimental programs (were, last year) in which you do not fill in the arrival card from an international flight, and only make a verbal declaration to the officer. You answer about your address, moral turpitude, and Nazis at checkin, but not customs questions. – Michael Homer Jun 25 at 5:09
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    @MichaelHomer I don't think I've seen the Nazi question on US immigration forms since 2012 (or rather: "I did Nazi that question!" - sorry!) – Dai Jun 25 at 7:17
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    Do they still have the question that goes something like, "While in the USA, do you intend to overthrow the Government?" Apparently, John Lennon answered it with, "Sole purpose of visit". – Oscar Bravo Jun 25 at 11:32
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    It's not about criminals following the law, it's about having an excuse to kick them out without a lot of judicial rigamarole – JasonB Jun 25 at 17:19
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    @OscarBravo When Manchester United football team were entering the old Czechoslovakia, for a vital European cup-tie, circa 1969, during the cold war - the iron-curtain protocols were rigid. Each player and member of staff was given a form to complete, which asked the usual things - name, dob, occupation etc. The team humourist - Glaswegian, Pat Crerand entered his name as "James Bond", and occupation as "spy". The communist border officials were not amused, and the whole team experienced a lengthy delay while Mr Crerand was interrogated. – WS2 Jun 26 at 15:33
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it sounds like ignorance of the law could be a reasonable defense. Is it?

No.

I believe that is fundamental to many systems of law.

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I would slightly amend some of the other answers here: ignorance of the law is not a defense, but it can be a mitigating factor in sentencing. If you intended to follow the law but were unaware of something that a normal person might not know of, you could use that to sugggest a decrease (or elimination) of the penalty. It doesn't mean you didn't commit the offense, but if you took no efforts to conceal (whatever it was) and it is sufficiently unusual that a person might reasonably not know about it needing to be declared, then a judge might go easier on you. It is usually at their discretion, though, so certainly don't rely on it!

That said, particularly on an airline odds are you've been asked about all of the relevant things, and typically when there are common things people aren't thinking of, there will be signs - for example, when pot became legal in Canada a few weeks before I traveled there (not for that reason!), there were at least a dozen different places that signs were posted reminding travelers they shouldn't bring any pot back to the US, even if they're going to a pot-friendly state, as it's federally illegal.

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Your obligation to know and follow the law is independent of this question- it is just a friendly reminder.

Imagine you pull a gun and line it up on someone, and a police officer says 'you know you're not allowed to shoot someone' - you seriously assume you can shoot then, and claim his question wasn't legally binding because he didn't cite the respective law?

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