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The Perpetual Forfeiture Machine

On August 28, 2011, in federal, by John Payne

Gibson Guitar is an American institution, manufacturing the guitars of choice for musicians ranging from Chet Atkins to Zakk Wylde, Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa, and Woody Guthrie to James Hetfield. Now, the company is under violent assault from heavily armed agents of the federal government. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson’s chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company’s manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. “The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier,” he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.

It isn’t the first time that agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service have come knocking at the storied maker of such iconic instruments as the Les Paul electric guitar, the J-160E acoustic-electric John Lennon played, and essential jazz-boxes such as Charlie Christian’s ES-150. In 2009 the Feds seized several guitars and pallets of wood from a Gibson factory, and both sides have been wrangling over the goods in a case with the delightful name “United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms.”

That humorous phrasing indicates that it is a civil asset forfeiture case because under civil forfeiture, the property itself is charged with the crime, not a person. That also means that the government won’t have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt but only through a preponderance of the evidence. It gets worse:

The question in the first raid seemed to be whether Gibson had been buying illegally harvested hardwoods from protected forests, such as the Madagascar ebony that makes for such lovely fretboards. And if Gibson did knowingly import illegally harvested ebony from Madagascar, that wouldn’t be a negligible offense. Peter Lowry, ebony and rosewood expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden, calls the Madagascar wood trade the “equivalent of Africa’s blood diamonds.” But with the new raid, the government seems to be questioning whether some wood sourced from India met every regulatory jot and tittle.

It isn’t just Gibson that is sweating. Musicians who play vintage guitars and other instruments made of environmentally protected materials are worried the authorities may be coming for them next.

If you are the lucky owner of a 1920s Martin guitar, it may well be made, in part, of Brazilian rosewood. Cross an international border with an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, and you better have correct and complete documentation proving the age of the instrument. Otherwise, you could lose it to a zealous customs agent—not to mention face fines and prosecution.

John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says “there’s a lot of anxiety, and it’s well justified.” Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, “I don’t go out of the country with a wooden guitar.”

The tangled intersection of international laws is enforced through a thicket of paperwork. Recent revisions to 1900′s Lacey Act require that anyone crossing the U.S. border declare every bit of flora or fauna being brought into the country. One is under “strict liability” to fill out the paperwork—and without any mistakes.

It’s not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What’s the bridge made of? If it’s ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar’s headstock bone, or could it be ivory? “Even if you have no knowledge—despite Herculean efforts to obtain it—that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever,” Prof. Thomas has written. “Oh, and you’ll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration.”

And once the government forfeits that guitar, it could presumably sell it and give most of the proceeds to whatever agency initiated the seizure. Hypothetically, they could seize and resell the guitar in this manner an infinite number of times. In practice, of course, that would be impossible, but don’t think that will keep them from trying.

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  1. [...] myriad ways the government can forfeit property under the Lacey Act. I previously covered this case here. Share and Enjoy: var SurphaceSettings = { s4id: 'Q392MJV3' }; var _surphld = [...]

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