US Customs Won't Tell Me Why It Seized Some Poetry Books

US Customs and Border Protection officer at the Miami International Airport on July 1, 2016 (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
US Customs and Border Protection officer at the Miami International Airport on July 1, 2016 (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Back in September, I published a list of everything that had been seized in Florida over the summer by US Customs and Border Protection. There were plenty of things you’d expect, like drugs, Cuban cigars, and illegal meat. But there were a few things that I wanted to learn more about. Like why CBP seized someone’s “poem books.”


I quickly filed a Freedom of Information Act request to follow up on details about the poetry books. Were all the poetry books the same title? Were they professionally printed or someone’s personal handwritten poetry? How many copies were there? And why the hell were they seized?

I got an answer today. The answer from CBP seems to be “we don’t have to tell you.” When I first got the list back in September, I reached out to CBP’s press relations department. They were cordial enough, but said that I’d have to file another FOIA request to learn about the poetry books. Which is precisely what I did. But today CBP has more or less told me to fuck off.

My request:

I request all documents, including any available reports and photos, about the seizure of poetry books by US Customs and Border Protection in Florida some time between May 25, 2016 and August 25, 2016. It was revealed in FOIA request CBP‐OFO‐2016‐062235 that poetry books had been seized at one of Florida’s ports over the summer, though the specific date and location were not released. It is the purpose of this request to determine the reason for their seizure, and any other details surrounding this particular case.

The response from CBP today came in two parts. Reason one seems to do with the privacy of whoever had their poetry books seized.

Your FOIA request is a third party request and did not include authorization that information on this individual can be released to you. All third party FOIA requests must include a signed G-28 or G-639 form, or a signed statement from the individual verifying that his/her information may be released to you.


Obtaining a privacy waiver like a G-28 or G-639 form is a bit hard, given the fact that I have no other information about the case. When federal agencies do release information like this they typically just redact information to protect the privacy of private citizens.

The second reason for the denial alleges that I didn’t describe what I was looking for specifically enough:

Did not include a clear and detailed description of the records being requested. Please be advised that the FOIA does not require federal agencies to answer inquiries or create records in response to a FOIA request, but rather is limited to requiring agencies to provide access to reasonably described, nonexempt records.


Which seems a bit rich. The only reason I know about the seizure of the poetry books is because of a document sent to me by CBP. Do they have such shitty record keeping that they can’t follow up on the exact case that they first told me about?

I’ll be filing an appeal, but it should probably be noted that I’ve been getting a ton of FOIA request denials in the past week from the Department of Homeland Security. I have a feeling that FOIA requestors are going to have to fight doubly hard to get even basic information released over the next four years.


Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog


Sparky Polastry

So it seems they seized the poetry books without rhyme or reason....