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8th Cir. Tosses Border Control's $38M Fines Against Union Pacific

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on December 17, 2013 2:55 PM

A three-member panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (mostly) upheld a lower court ruling that found U.S. border officials exceeded their authority when they imposed $38 million in fines against Union Pacific Corp. for failing to discover illegal drugs in Mexican-controlled railcars that crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into the US of A.

The case explores under what circumstances U.S. Customs and Border Protection have power to impose fines on railroad companies and seize railcars.

A Question of Control

The agency's proposed fines against Union Pacific ranged from $16,579 to more than $8.2 million per incident. To illustrate the absurdity of the fines (and to prove that no good deed goes unpunished!), the panel pointed to one incident when the railroad was fined more than $655,000 after a Union Pacific police officer found nearly 82 pounds of marijuana on a train that U.S. border agents had missed.

The appeals panel agreed with U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon's 2011 ruling that officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not have authority to impose these astronomical fines and seize railroad equipment.

The government argued in its appeal of Bataillon's ruling that the Tariff Act of 1930 -- as amended, 19 U.S.C. § 1584(a)(2) -- gave it authority to impose the fines. But the appeals panel begged to differ. But the panel ruled the Tariff Act does not authorize the agency to impose penalties against Union Pacific for drugs found on railcars it "neither owns nor controls."

Injunction Set Aside

Although the panel agreed that the agency exceeded its authority with regard to the fines, it set aside the lower court's imprecise injunction that, in effect, would completely enjoin the agency from penalizing Union Pacific, period.

The appeals panel narrowed the scope of the injunction and directed the lower court to only enjoin the agency from penalizing Union Pacific for illegal drugs found on cars it neither controls nor owns -- not ones it does have control over (all the livelong day).

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