MONSEY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A family of four from Florida visiting relatives in New Jersey got an unwelcome surprise at the Customs gate — all because of some forgotten fruit and vegetables.
The oversight was an expensive one that has the family fuming, reports CBS 2’s Sean Hennessey.
“I don’t have to be traumatized like this. Nobody should have to be traumatized,” Suri Steinberger said.
Suri and Peter Steinberger are livid after what they call an over-reaction by customs agents at Newark Liberty Airport. They were told they had violated a federal crime — forgetting about an apple, a tomato and three cucumbers in their son’s backpack.
“For me it was like, you know, what you see on TV. I thought I was going to get handcuffed, they have my kids. So I just started to cry,” Suri Steinberger said.
The run-in with Customs agents happened Thursday at the end of a long trip from Israel. Suri packed the vegetables as snack for her boys.
“Let them eat it on the plane instead of eating garbage,” Suri said.
The problem was she didn’t sit with her husband and two boys on the flight and Peter didn’t know the produce was in the bag.
So when the declaration form came around, Peter said he “checked no on all the boxes.”
Customs officials told Hennessey strict rules are for “agricultural integrity” and that passengers have multiple opportunities to amend the Customs declaration form.
“I have no idea what they mean by that except for the fact they say you should have been looking at the posted signs,” Peter said.
While passengers were stunned at the strictness, others said it was par for the course.
“Other countries do it, too. They’re pretty strict. I travel a lot for work and I get the same thing,” said Christine Colella of North Brunswick, N.J.
Customs did say it’s up to the discretion of the officer to “destroy” the product or “fine the traveler,” discretion this family said was sorely missing given the Customs sheet showing the prohibited items and their $300 fine.
“You’re coming off a flight after 19 hours. You’re all flustered. You don’t know what world you’re on. The first thing on your mind isn’t vegetables in your backpack,” Peter said.
The family hopes what happened is a lesson to others that even an innocent mistake at customs may be a costly one.
The Steinbergers said they don’t expect to get their money back but do plan on taking the case with higher ups at customs.
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