Alligator Skin Hermes Handbag Seized at Heathrow

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A businesswoman who was caught out by endangered species protection laws when border control officers seized an alligator skin Hermes handbag at Heathrow airport has failed to convince a tax tribunal that the luxury item should be returned to her.

The handbag was intended as a Christmas gift for the woman’s mother, a non-UK resident, and had been purchased in America by a family friend. It was brought into the UK by another third party who declared it in the red channel and presented a purchase receipt and a certificate from the manufacturer. However, in the absence of the required import/export documentation, officers seized the handbag under the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Following a review, the decision not to restore the handbag was upheld by the Director of Border Revenue and its forfeiture and condemnation were ordered. Before the First-tier Tribunal (FTT), the woman mounted a wide-ranging attack on that decision, citing human rights legislation and claiming, amongst other things, that the handbag was a ‘personal effect’ and thus exempt from the provisions of CITES.

However, the FTT noted that it had very limited jurisdiction to consider her arguments and ruled that the handbag’s seizure, as well as the refusal to restore it, could not be criticised as irrational. Arguments as to whether the handbag was a personal effect, whilst interesting, did not fall within the FTT’s remit and it also had no power to review the lawfulness of the handbag’s initial seizure.

Whilst expressing sympathy for the woman, the FTT ruled that the refusal to restore the handbag ‘fell within the range of possible reasonable decisions’ open to the Director. The woman had failed to take up an earlier opportunity to challenge the handbag’s condemnation and the FTT concluded, “It is not unreasonable of itself not to restore illegally imported items.”