Customs and Excise officers - powers to search travellers' baggage
Selective checks to protect society
Customs and Excise officers are allowed to carry out checks on imported goods (including personal baggage) to prevent the smuggling of dutiable, excisable or prohibited goods. These checks are carried out routinely on travellers arriving from outside the EU or from outside the EU via an EU Member State. These travellers are required to make a Customs declaration.
If you are arriving in Ireland from outside the EU via an EU Member State, you must make a Customs declaration unless all your baggage was cleared by Customs officers at your first airport or point of arrival in the EU. (Cash controls require that if you are entering or leaving the European Union and carrying €10,000 or more cash you must make a special declaration to the Customs authority of the member state you are entering or leaving.)
If all of your baggage was cleared by Customs officers upon your arrival in the EU, you can proceed through the Blue Channel. Customs declarations are usually done by means of the Red/Green Channel system. Travellers should go through the Red Channel if:
- They have more than the allowances that they are entitled to, or
- They are in doubt about whether they have more than the permitted allowances or
- They have prohibited or restricted goods.
Travellers should go through the Green Channel if they have:
- Only the allowances that they are permitted and
- No prohibited or restricted goods.
Travellers arriving from outside the EU may be questioned and their baggage may be examined. Travellers arriving from within the EU are not required to make a Customs declaration and should proceed through the Blue Channel. However, Customs officers have the power to question these travellers if there is reason to doubt that they have arrived from an EU Member State. Customs officers may also intervene if they have reason to believe that prohibited or restricted goods (including drugs) are being imported/exported or if they believe an offence in respect of excisable products is being committed.
These procedures are in place to help protect society and to guard against tax or duty fraud.
Searches of travellers
Travellers may be searched by Customs officers only where an officer has reason to suspect that they are:
- Carrying uncustomed or prohibited goods (uncustomed goods are goods that are imported over and above the personal traveller's allowance and that are not declared to Customs) or
- Carrying drugs on their person.
In cases where a Customs officer suspects that the person is carrying uncustomed or prohibited goods, he or she must go before a superior officer of the Customs and Excise service who will decide whether there are sufficient grounds for the search to be carried out.
In practice, most searches are carried out by Customs officers in respect of drugs. If you are to be searched on suspicion of carrying drugs:
- You must understand the reason for the search. It has been known for drug smugglers to use people with disabilities or children to carry drugs. If Customs officers are required to search a child or a person with a disability, it is done in the presence of a parent or guardian.
- You can only be searched by an officer of the same sex
- No person of the opposite sex can be present where the search involves the removal of clothing other than hat, coat jacket, gloves or similar articles of clothing unless the presence of the person is necessary as a result of your violent conduct
- You have the right to request that the search be carried out by a medical practitioner
- The search must be conducted in a room to which the public does not have free access. Windows must be screened and doors secured to ensure complete privacy.
- If you refuse to be searched, you may be arrested without warrant by the Customs officer and may be prosecuted. If you are arrested by Customs officers, you will be taken to the nearest police station to be charged with an offence.
- If Customs officers find controlled drugs, you may prosecuted. You may be arrested or proceeded against later by summons.
Customs officers keep records of all searches that they conduct.
Additionally, everyone detained by Customs officers has the right of:
- Access to a solicitor
- Access to a doctor
- Informing a relative/third party of their situation
If you feel you have been unfairly treated by Customs officers you may make a complaint - see "How to apply" below.
Types of Search
Pat down search
A pat down search involves a search of outer clothing without the removal of clothing.
Intimate body search
An intimate body search may involve the removal and search of clothing and a visual examination of the undressed person by an officer or medical practitioner to verify if drugs are being concealed.
You cannot be subjected to an intimate body search for drugs unless:
- Customs officers have reasonable cause to suspect that you are in possession of a controlled drug.
Internal body search
Customs officers do not carry out internal body searches.
Penalties for carrying uncustomed goods
The penalties for carrying uncustomed goods are generally three times the duty paid value of the goods in question. The goods are also liable to forfeiture and can be seized along with any other articles used for concealing or conveying the uncustomed goods or packed with them.
Penalties for carrying illegal drugs
The penalties for smuggling illegal drugs are set out in the Misuse of Drugs Act , as amended. These penalties range from a fine in the case of a person convicted of importing a drug such as cannabis for personal use to life imprisonment for the most serious offences, which concern the importation of drugs for supply to others.
If you have any information in relation to drug smuggling in Ireland (pdf), you can send a completed Customs Drugs Watch report form to Customs Drugs Law Enforcement- see "Where to apply" (Remember to clearly mark "FREEPOST" on the envelope.)
How to apply
Complaints about customs searches
If you feel you have been the victim of unfair treatment at the hands of Customs officers, you should complain at the relevant time to the Collector or other local manager. If you are unhappy with the response, you can ask to have your complaint referred to the Customer Service Manager in the relevant Region/District. Revenue have published a leaflet (CS4) on their complaint and review procedures (pdf).
Where to apply