U.S. Customs Arbitrary 16-Day Seizure of Locking Liner Knives Cost Columbia River Knife and Tool More Than $1,000,000
Wilsonville, OR (October 20, 2000) – In a dramatic turn of events today, the U.S. Customs Service gave life back to Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT) Company of Wilsonville, Oregon with one phone call. The Customs Service reversed itself, calling off a sweeping product seizure that had lasted some 16 days and threatened Columbia River’s future. Their story is not unique in the history of the knife industry. But it is the most recent and the most dramatic example of how the interpretation of Federal Law by even one person can alter the course of a company, perhaps even an industry.
What really happened to CRKT? How could a thriving, responsible company in our industry suddenly find itself unable to ship 50 models of its locking liner folding knives that had always passed every previous test devised by U.S. Customs? How could they get to the point where nearly seven years of effort was almost destroyed by one arbitrary action carried out by the Portland office of the U.S. Customs Service? For those of you who want the facts, here they are.
The Customs Service action began with the October 3rd notice of seizure of a routine shipment of CRKT locking liner folding knives entering the port of Portland. According to Rod Bremer of CRKT, “this action by our local U.S. Customs office froze more than 80,000 pieces of our product with a retail value in excess of $4.3 million. We have lost more than $1million in sales during our busiest time of year. We have already spent more than $30,000 on legal fees. And we’re still counting.” CRKT, like many U.S. knife and hand tool companies, contracts significant manufacturing to overseas suppliers. This particular shipment had actually cleared Customs on September 29th. But after thinking about the folding knives for some four days, one inspector then decided on October 3 that the CRKT products acted like switchblades, in their opinion, so they could be seized. The following day, October 4, U. S. Customs agents then made an on-site inspection of the Columbia River warehouse in Wilsonville.
The inspection resulted in Customs agents taking seven models as samples, with the added stipulation that these seven models were being “detained” in the CRKT warehouse and could not be distributed by the company until released by Customs. Two days later, on October 6, Portland Customs faxed CRKT an expanded notice of seizure that now included exactly 50 models stored by CRKT. “In a matter of days,” Bremer said, “we had gone from an approved shipment and business as usual to seizure of 54 percent of our entire product offering and some 85 percent of our total business.”
The U.S. Switch Blade Knife Act of 1958, 15 U.S.C. 1241, defines “switchblade knife” as one that has a “blade which opens automatically – (1) by hand pressure applied by a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or (2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both.” The CRKT folding knives are designed with a bias to remain closed. They don’t open automatically or with a release button or as a result of gravity. They have to be opened manually, not with a flick of the wrist. However, Bremer notes when the inspectors came to the CRKT facility on October 4th, they tried to open sample knives using “vigorous, full-arm swinging motions, and were able to achieve 90-degree opening in some cases after four or five tries.” In short, the agents worked very hard to make these knives meet their own arbitrary conception of how they imagined a switchblade really worked.
CRKT began in 1994 with the express purpose of making multi-function working knives – folding knives and small straight knives. “In the beginning,” Rod Bremer adds, “we alerted Customs to new models we were expecting to import, even though we didn’t have to do that. We didn’t want any surprises. But as the business grew, we stopped that practice because it was so time-consuming and also because for the past four years all models of our locking liner knives have always cleared the Customs inspections.” Until now. Now the decision of one U.S. Customs specialist, in one office, attempting to create their own definition of a “switchblade” that is both contrary to the Federal definition and to U.S. Customs Regulations, thrust a reputable company into a high-stakes, high-cost fight for its very life. If the decision had not been overturned, it could have made millions of folding-knife users in this country de-facto criminals.
Once the seizure was announced, CRKT quickly retained legal counsel expert in import and customs issues. Fortified by extensive CRKT research on the knife industry and knife types, the company’s legal representatives filed a Petition of Relief from unfair and discriminatory treatment with the U.S. Customs Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In addition, on Tuesday, October 17, as a result of groundwork laid at a May 2000 AKTI presentation on the knife industry and follow-up by CRKT, Oregon U.S. Congresswoman Darlene Hooley and U.S. Senator Gordon Smith co-signed a letter that also petitioned the head of U.S. Customs for relief for CRKT. This letter was momentous for two reasons. It showed that a responsible company doing its best to follow the law can expect to be supported by its elected representatives. And once the letter was sent, it automatically prompted a Federal inquiry of U.S. Customs actions in this case that must be answered in 30 days.
Finally, on Friday, October 20, 2000, the owners of Columbia River Knife and Tool received a phone call that they were effectively back in business. The petition to the U.S. Customs Service had been decided in their favor. Columbia River Knife and Tool is now selling all its models again. But its losses were significant, losses it will never recover. In fact, U.S. Customs only reversed itself after CRKT agreed never to sue them on this or any other planet for losses related to the seizure. Even more frightening, the “hold harmless” agreement also stipulated that if the U.S. Customs Service incurred any expense in pursuing their seizure, they could bill CRKT for their costs!