Heidy v. United States Customs Service Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

April 1986

Case Description 

Heidy v. United States Customs Service is a case which challenged the authority of U.S. Customs officials to seize and copy the written materials of travelers to Nicaragua.

The government’s assertion in Haase v. Webster that Edward Haase’s experience with Customs was an isolated incident of harassment constituted the premise of the lower court’s decision in that case. The Customs Service, however, was revealed to have treated many other travelers to Nicaragua in similar ways. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) challenged this policy for a second time in a class action suit filed in April 1986 in a federal district court in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs were 12 individuals and five organizations, including the Latin American Studies Association and the National Central American Health Rights Network. The individual plaintiffs were U.S. citizens who, upon returning from trips to Nicaragua, had their personal papers, research materials, address books, and other written materials seized, read, photocopied, and, in some instances, sent to the FBI by U.S. Customs Service agents.

Pretrial discovery revealed a broad pattern of Customs abuses, including the use of Customs authority to gather intelligence about returnees from Nicaragua and the entry of that information into a nationwide Customs computer.

Under the threat of a court order, Customs agreed to the deletion of computer entries and the issuance of policy directives forbidding its officials from taking similar action in the future.

In March 1988 the district court issued a permanent injunction against Customs, ordering it to expunge all records of seizures under 19 U.S.C. § 1305, once a determination was made that the materials did not violate the statue. It further enjoined Customs from providing any materials to other agencies for review unless the other agency agrees to be bound by Customs policy restrictions. This means that unless the FBI agrees to follow Customs policy, Customs can no longer forward material detained under the statute to the FBI. Binding other agencies to these regulations will close a potentially large loophole that could have been used for intelligence-gathering. The government filed a notice of appeal, but in June 1989 it voluntarily moved to withdraw it. In December 1989 the government agreed to pay $75,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.