BROOKLYN (CN) – A New York man says the federal government unconstitutionally fined him $9,000 for refusing to fill out a form stating whether he had spent money in Cuba. Zachary Sanders claims the policy forces travelers to incriminate themselves. The Bush administration rejected his appeal and increased his fine on its last day in office.
It is legal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, but illegal for them to spend U.S. currency there. The policy for years has been honored more in the breach than in the observance.
The official U.S. policy is “part of its efforts to stifle American travel to Cuba,” Sanders says. He claims that citizens who fill out the questionnaire from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control make open themselves up for criminal sanctions.
“The penalty imposed against (Sanders) is unlawful because the Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from punishing failure to obey any regulation that requires a self-incriminating act,” he says in his federal complaint.
Sanders went to Cuba in 1998 for three weeks, by way of the Bahamas. In 2000, the OFCA sent him the document, “Requirement to Furnish Information,” which demanded details of his travel and spending, including “a complete itemization” of all the money he spent and the names and addresses of his travel companions.
Sanders says he refused to fill out the form and challenged the legality of the request. An administrative law judge rejected his arguments and fined $1,000.
Sanders says the Treasury Department rejected his 2008 appeal, on the last day of the Bush administration, and increased the fine $9,000.
Unlicensed U.S. travelers to Cuba can be fined up to $10,000.
Previous lawsuits against the travel ban have been thrown out of U.S. courts. Sanders’ lawsuit comes as the Obama administration is tentatively trying a new approach to Cuba, now ruled by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul. Some travel and remittance restrictions have been relaxed and other legislation is pending in Congress.
“Although the Obama administration relaxed Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ ability to visit family in Cuba, it has done nothing to end the travel restrictions generally or to change OFAC’s unlawful practices,” Sander’s attorney Anjana Samant said.
“What happened to Mr. Sanders could happen to anyone else.”
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the policy is unlawful and the fine is excessive. Sanders wants the OFAC enjoined from issuing such penalties.
The OFAC enforces sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya and parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Adam Szubin, director of the OFAC, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Attorney General Eric H. Holder are named as defendants.
Sanders is represented by Samant with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Daphna Zekaria with Sokolski & Zekaria.