Lawrence M. Friedman is a partner at Barnes, Richardson & Colburn, LLP and an adjunct professor at the John Marshall Law School’s Center for International Law. He is also the author of the Customs Law Blog, and a previous guest poster here at Law and the Multiverse. This post was originally written for the Customs Law Blog and is republished here by his invitation.
Lately, I have been on a slow binge of watching the Walking Dead. Like most TV adaptations of graphic novels and comics, I am finding it very entertaining. I’m only in Season 3, so no one tell me . . . well, anything. As a result, I have been seeing a lot of images of corpses, both animate and inanimate. That reminded me that there is a specific provision in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (“HTSUS”) for the importation of corpses.
The HTSUS is the statute (19 USC 1202) by which imported products are assigned rates of duty. It also sets out certain other regulatory requirements and exceptions. General Note 3(e), HTSUS, exempts from customs duties “corpses, together with their coffins and accompanying flowers.”
When goods arrive at a port in the U.S., they are usually subject to an “entry.” That is the process of legally entering the goods into the commerce of the United States and reporting that fact to Customs and Border Protection. The Customs Regulations provide that “all merchandise” is subject to entry unless exempted and lists HTSUS General Note 3(e) as an exemption. That seems confirm that corpses are not subject to entry requirements and not subject to duty. Or maybe not.
What if the “merchandise” to be imported is human heads, heads with necks, torsos, legs, arms, etc. taken from body donors? That is the question answered by Customs and Border Protection in its private letter ruling HQ H235506 (Jan.14, 2013). As customs rulings go, this is awesome. I don’t know how I missed it when it was issued.
The ruling starts with the ancient legal principle that there can be no commercial property interest in a dead body. Among other sources, Customs cited Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) for this legal proposition. At the same time, we all have a legal right to a decent burial, which puts a duty on survivors to properly care for the body of the decedent. For this, Customs cites a book I desperately want: The Law of Cadavers by Percival Jackson. All of which must be weighed against the right of the not-yet-dead to donate their body to science under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.
Getting to the substance of the issue, Customs looked at prior rulings in which it determined that cadavers imported for medical analysis are “corpses” for purposes of General Note 3(e). Customs has long had the practice of exempting corpses from duty and entry.
But this case involves parts of corpses. Counsel for the importers made the hand waving argument that it would be distasteful for CBP “to begin quibbling about the relative portions of human remains that are imported before qualifying for the GN 3(e)” exemption. Based solely on longstanding practice, a couple rulings, and “the weight of history,” Customs agreed. Given that the body parts will eventually be given a decent burial, Customs saw no reason to interfere with the disposition of the “merchandise.”
I have a couple of questions. First, is there a flipside to the distasteful task of deciding how much of a body should be treated as a corpse? Counsel for the importer seemed to be wondering how much can be removed from the deceased and still have it remain a corpse for purposes of the customs laws. Apparently, the answer is that an entire body can be removed leaving the head legally a “corpse.” What about a sample taken from a living human? This ruling says an arm or leg taken from a cadaver is a “corpse” and exempt from classification and entry. What about an arm or leg taken from a living person? Is that extremity now a corpse if imported into the United States. How would Customs know whether the “donor” was living or dead? Is the legal distinction administrable?
My second question has to do with the looming zombie apocalypse depicted in the Walking Dead TV series and presumably in the graphic novel. What if the unlucky victim of viral zombie reanimation happens to be visiting the Windsor Ballet at the time of his or her demise? When the undead start shuffling north toward the tunnel to Detroit, will there be a problem when it arrives at Customs? Is the walker a “corpse?” If so, it will not need to be entered as merchandise, and can continue walking.
If it is a person, it will need to clear immigration checks, which will be hard for the inarticulate shuffler lacking a passport. Customs might have to make accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, would the passport still be valid? It seem the correct “birthday” would now be the date of reanimation. I will leave that to the immigration lawyers.
Assuming the walker is no longer a person, Customs should treat it like an animal. If it is a dead but still walking animal, the best guidance ruling I can find (with minimal research) is HQ 975664, in which dead animals are treated as zoological specimens in HTSUS item 9705.00.00 (it’s duty free!). In this case, the dead animal is walking itself across the border, which raises questions of whether the walker is the “owner, purchaser, or consignee” of the merchandise (which is the walker). Since we know there can be no property interest in a dead body (or living person), the walker would need to be his or her own consignee to have the legal right to make entry of himself or herself. If it is alive but non-human, I suggest an HTSUS classification of 0106.11.00 as live primates, which is also duty free.
Finally, there are, of course, issues of admissibility. As Customs pointed out in the ruling that sparked this post, the importation of corpses is subject to regulation by the Centers for Disease Control. Given the plot of The Walking Dead, it seems pretty certain that the CDC would have something to say about this.
If anyone from Customs and Border Protection knows what would happen if an unaccompanied non-human primate showed up at the border crossing, please drop a comment below.
Also, if any readers have rulings to nominate for Ruling of the Week treatment, please note them in a comment. I am particularly interested in bizarre products, crazy food items, and restricted merchandise. I am aware of the numerous NSFW rulings on personal massage devices, so no need to reference those. I try and keep this a family and office friendly site.