DHS steals TechCrunch founder’s boat over paperwork error

posted at 9:37 pm on February 25, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

Michael Arrington is a prominent tech blogger, who sold his site Tech Crunch to AOL in 2010. As such, this particular story of government overreach, starring a gleeful bureaucrat taking the property of a citizen operating in good faith, may get a wider audience than the usual conservatives and libertarians who catch wind of such things. Good. For every story that gets attention, there are countless abuses that don’t.

The story starts with Arrington buying himself a boat. He lives in Seattle, where there’s much boating to be done. Having paid for the boat, named her, and had her imported from Canada, she was to arrive Thursday. After signing a few customs papers, Arrington was to be standing astride the deck of his vessel. No such luck.

I named her Buddy. It has state of the art electronics and a fairly new highly efficient propulsion system that the TechCrunch audience would be interested in.

Today was the day that Buddy was going to be delivered. That didn’t happen, because the Department of Homeland Security seized the boat.

Buddy has to clear customs, part of the DHS, since she was built in Canada.

My job was to show up and sign forms and then leave with Buddy (WA sales tax and registration fees come a week later).

DHS takes documents supplied by the builder and creates a government form that includes basic information about the boat, including the price.

The primary form, prepared by the government, had an error. The price was copied from the invoice, but DHS changed the currency from Canadian to U.S. dollars.

It has language at the bottom with serious sounding statements that the information is true and correct, and a signature block.

I pointed out the error and suggested that we simply change the currency from US $ to CAD $ so that is was correct. Or instead, amend the amount so that it was correct in U.S. dollars.

I thought this was important because I was signing it and swearing that the information, and specifically the price, was correct.

The DHS agent didn’t care about the error and told me to sign the form anyway. “It’s just paperwork, it doesn’t matter,” she said. I declined.

I, too, would refuse to sign a form for the government containing obvious errors when said form has threats from the government for knowingly signing something incorrect. Had Arrington acquiesced in the form-signing, he would surely have been liable for the mistake in later tax forms or accounting documents. One would think the form could be quickly corrected, especially since the mistake was the government’s not Arrington’s. But this is the United States government we’re talking about:

She called another agent and said simply “He won’t sign the form.” I asked to speak to that agent to give them a more complete picture of the situation. She wouldn’t allow that.

Then she seized the boat. As in, demanded that we get off the boat, demanded the keys and took physical control of it.

What struck me the most about the situation is how excited she got about seizing the boat. Like she was just itching for something like this to happen. This was a very happy day for her.

So now I have to hire a lawyer to try to figure all this out. And I will figure it out, eventually.

My point in writing this isn’t to whine. Like I said, this will get worked out one way or another.

No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.

A person with a gun and a government badge asked me to swear in writing that a lie was true today. And when I didn’t do what she wanted she simply took my boat and asked me to leave.

Arrington wanted his boat. He was seemingly acting in good faith to sail his new purchase through the U.S. customs system. The system is no doubt complicated, and Arrington’s likely never been through it before, but it was in his best interest to cooperate to the best of his ability, and in so doing correct a problem he noticed.

None of that mattered to the person who seized his boat. I was struck by his description of a bureaucrat’s excitement at the prospect of his deigning to step a quarter-inch out of line, so she could make with the heavy-handed discipline. Doesn’t that just ring true? Sure, not all public servants are in this category. But how often have you clammed up and avoided making a reasonable objection, or even asking a question, in the presence of a be-badged official you calculate would delight in dragging you to a special security area to hassle you for 45 minutes for your impudence? If you’re lucky, the cost is a missed flight. In many cases, the cost could be a trip to the county jail, a ticket, a minor charge, or as in this case, the loss of a rather expensive piece of property.

Arrington got back his boat, largely he says because the company that built it went to great lengths to extract it from DHS. The company has no doubt dealt with the customs office before, knows who to call, and has more sway than a single citizen. But you shouldn’t need to know the right people to simply sail the boat you own. Arrington says it succinctly: “My point in writing this isn’t to whine. Like I said, this will get worked out one way or another. No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.”

And, if it’s this hard for a well-educated and well-heeled citizen who can get a lawyer to navigate the system, there are many more with fewer advantages dealing with this kind of abuse at every level about whom we never hear.

All this put me in mind of an epic rant by Dilbert creator Scott Adams this week, called “I want my cheese.” He recounts a shopping trip and the cascading and unintended consequences of the California bag law, ending with this:

My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don’t live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I’d rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.

This is an interesting issue because every business decision that causes inconvenience for customers is viewed in isolation. When you take that perspective, eventually the entire process becomes so complicated it is barely competitive with dumpster diving.

What we need is some sort of system in which any proposed complication is viewed as more bothersome than earlier complications. The first complication usually doesn’t cause much problem. The tenth complication – no matter how well-meaning – destroys the system.

But here’s my big gripe. Yes, I saved the best for last. You see, brains are like muscles in the sense that they have a limited capacity during any given day. If you lift too many heavy objects, your muscles will fail. Likewise, if you use up all of your brain cycles on nonsense, you have nothing left for the important things in life, such as making Dilbert comics and writing blog posts.

Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn’t simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren’t thinking about solutions to real problems.

If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway’s marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.

Complexity sneaks up on you because every individual decision – such as the bag laws in my city – make sense when viewed in isolation. But if that trend continues, complexity will be a huge drag on civilization.

Does complexity have a cure?

Yes, every idea from every well-meaning bureaucrat has a cost. It can be human or business-related, small or large. But they add up, and when we add hundreds more all the time, the cost gets higher and higher.

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That’s all that happened to him..

Try running lemon-aid stand in Oregon..
/

Electrongod on February 25, 2013 at 9:45 PM

Moral of the story: Always have a running recording device when dealing with any government official.

Of course, people get arrested for having those, too.

Socratease on February 25, 2013 at 9:48 PM

There is no cure for complexity… sorry.

Next please!

Scrumpy on February 25, 2013 at 9:50 PM

Having paid for the boat, named her, and had her imported from Canada,
==============

D*mmitt,I just knew that Canada would get dragged into
this,its the Perfect Storm I tells ya!
(sarc)

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 9:51 PM

there are alot more stories that you never hear about!…especially the last few years

KOOLAID2 on February 25, 2013 at 9:51 PM

Arrington was much more forthright and honest in the building and tax liabilities of his yacht than our current Secretary of State who has yet to pay the taxes he should be paying on his boat sitting in Rhode Island to avoid Mass. taxes.

Happy Nomad on February 25, 2013 at 9:52 PM

Just when you were sure government couldn’t get any dumber, government created DHS. Neanderthal in its “thinking” and barbarian in its behavior. Lord help us!

Charm on February 25, 2013 at 9:53 PM

The mouse that roars !!! LOL

ExpressoBold on February 25, 2013 at 9:55 PM

The primary form, prepared by the government, had an error. The price was copied from the invoice, but DHS changed the currency from Canadian to U.S. dollars.
=========================

Well,no wonder,*Alarm Bells* should be ringing,right there,
on the currency exchange,a red flag if you will,er wait……
DHS did the converting,er,conversion,hmmm…
(sarc)

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 9:55 PM

I named her Buddy.

er. wut?

ted c on February 25, 2013 at 9:55 PM

As Churchill said: A government that creates thousands of regulations becomes lawless.

HopeHeFails on February 25, 2013 at 9:56 PM

That biatch that took the boat, hmmmmm, expect more of the same for everything!

These kind of people are everywhere, there is no escaping them!

Give someone a badge and a little power and the ‘nazi’ in them always comes out…

See, you’re not crazy, you’re just ahead of the curve.

Potentia ad Populum!

Scrumpy on February 25, 2013 at 9:56 PM

That isn’t new. This one happened years ago.

At least the guy got his boat back. Others ain’t so lucky.

The government taking the Skyraider really ticked me off. Though I got to see her in Mobile back in January. Another beautiful aircraft, taken by the government (it wasn’t the first), that will never fly again.

cozmo on February 25, 2013 at 9:57 PM

D*mmitt,I just knew that Canada would get dragged into
this,its the Perfect Storm I tells ya!
(sarc)

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 9:51 PM

Well, I’ve always considered Canada the favored one of Obama’s additional 7 states. ;0

Fact of the matter this harrassment by DHS is by design. How many union people in US shipyards didn’t get work because the boat was built in Canada? The current administration punishes this kind of stuff any kind it can.

Happy Nomad on February 25, 2013 at 9:57 PM

What does bureaucratic seizing of a dude’s boat have to do with HOMELAND SECURITY?

Someone notify Michelle Obama. She can help, or something.

MikeknaJ on February 25, 2013 at 9:58 PM

What does the IRS have to do with Health Care?

Things that make you go Hummmmmm…

(I know why, just saying) :-)

Scrumpy on February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM

My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation.

Not really. Recyclable bags are known to promote the contamination of foods, leading to increased incidence of food poisoning and other diseases. One study suggests as many as 5 or 6 additional deaths each year in San Francisco are attributable to the city’s plastic bag ban.

Socratease on February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM

I’ll probably get droned now, too.
==================================

No Doubt,which reminds me,of Jim Treacher’s
incident with a black SUV.

Conservatives,check your “Six” at all times!!

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 10:01 PM

Evening all…

CoffeeLover on February 25, 2013 at 10:01 PM

Arrington was much more forthright and honest in the building and tax liabilities of his yacht than our current Secretary of State who has yet to pay the taxes he should be paying on his boat sitting in Rhode Island to avoid Mass. taxes.

Happy Nomad on February 25, 2013 at 9:52 PM

How come whenever I have looked that up to see if Mr. Ed ever paid up there is only the initial outrage articles. If he never paid up why not and why wasn’t it discussed at his last club meeting in the Senate?

arnold ziffel on February 25, 2013 at 10:02 PM

A big part of the problem is that nothing happens to these government employees when they deprive citizens of their constitutional rights. She should be FIRED for what she did, but probably won’t even get a slap on the wrist.

Think of all the police officers that physically harm people but are then reinstated because the police union and review board object to his firing. Other government employees don’t have even that much oversight.

Too much government is bad for liberty as well as the economy.

Common Sense on February 25, 2013 at 10:03 PM

Yes, every idea from every well-meaning bureaucrat has a cost.

MKH you should know by now, there is no such creature as a well-meaning bureaucrat, those creatures only exist in fiction. Bureaucrats are all like Obama the great Destroyer.

SWalker on February 25, 2013 at 10:04 PM

This was not an oversight or “mistake”.

This is what Marxists do. Make it impossible to conduct capitalism.

All intended with gleeful abandon by the tyrants in charge.

What we need is to seize back the government by means up to the use of force.

Play by their rules. They don’t play by ours…..

Time to kill the bureaucracy.

redguy on February 25, 2013 at 10:04 PM

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 9:51 PM

Well, I’ve always considered Canada the favored one of Obama’s additional 7 states. ;0

Fact of the matter this harrassment by DHS is by design. How many union people in US shipyards didn’t get work because the boat was built in Canada? The current administration punishes this kind of stuff any kind it can.

Happy Nomad on February 25, 2013 at 9:57 PM

Happy Nomad:Very good point,which reminds me of Kerrys Yacht
built outside the Land of the Bars’N’Stars ordeal!
———:)

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 10:05 PM

I named her Buddy.

er. wut?

ted c on February 25, 2013 at 9:55 PM

A) boats are always female

B) Boat owners have a very long history of naming their Boats the weirdest things.

SWalker on February 25, 2013 at 10:06 PM

Evening all…

CoffeeLover on February 25, 2013 at 10:01 PM

CoffeeLover:Good Evening CL:)

canopfor on February 25, 2013 at 10:08 PM

What does the IRS have to do with Health Care?

Scrumpy on February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM

Job creation..
Within the IRS..

The most ruthless tax collector on the face of this planet..

Electrongod on February 25, 2013 at 10:10 PM

Scrumpy on February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM

Job creation..
Within the IRS..

The most ruthless tax collector on the face of this planet..

Electrongod on February 25, 2013 at 10:10 PM

And agency after Barack “Judas Iscariot” Obama’s own heart.

SWalker on February 25, 2013 at 10:12 PM

Only debacles like these will wake Americans up to the fact that the Democrat Party rules like the Communists. In the meantime, I hope they enjoy it.

DannoJyd on February 25, 2013 at 10:40 PM

I named her Buddy.

er. wut?

ted c on February 25, 2013 at 9:55 PM

In the great Northwest, the name/term Buddy is now gender neutral.

bbhack on February 25, 2013 at 10:41 PM

No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.”

This is the first obvious thing you notice in other countries, not anymore.

Speakup on February 25, 2013 at 10:45 PM

Mr. Arrington was being honest in the Government’s favor, given the current exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollar.

All good deeds come back to haunt us.

unclesmrgol on February 25, 2013 at 10:55 PM

My bad. C$1.00 is US$0.97.

But close enough for government work, it seems.

unclesmrgol on February 25, 2013 at 10:57 PM

Time to file a complaint about the “official” encouraging the violation of law. Let her stew through an internal affairs investigation.

GarandFan on February 25, 2013 at 10:58 PM

If one looks at this new law in isolation, it seems reasonable enough. People will adjust to the change and the environment will be better for it.

… And that right there is why I stopped reading Dilbert or anything else Scott Adams writes

AZfederalist on February 25, 2013 at 11:09 PM

Does complexity have a cure?


Of course, read up on the Egyptian dynasties, Roman Empire, Dutch East Indies Trading Company, Spain’s conquest of the New World, the sun never setting on the English Empire, the Holy Roman Empire …

… basically all of recorded history gives you the answer:

Socio-economic collapse and wars cure a good deal of complexity. The people participating first hand generally don’t enjoy the process however.

PolAgnostic on February 25, 2013 at 11:12 PM

I’ve been fighting with my city code enforcement for years now. They think the house I own and live in is a rental property. This came to be when they got an anonymous call of a “tenant” complaining about the property several years agao. I’ve invited them out to inspect every time they try to charge me the city rental fee. They never come out, and they never stop hassling me for money. They’ve never told me what the “complaint” is/was. I think they simply enjoy fcking with me. Makes me wonder how many people just flat out ignore them.

goflyers on February 25, 2013 at 11:12 PM

One study suggests as many as 5 or 6 additional deaths each year in San Francisco are attributable to the city’s plastic bag ban.

Socratease on February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM

Well, that’s a start, but we’ll need a higher attrition rate to get rid of the liberals in that state.

questionmark on February 25, 2013 at 11:27 PM

Does complexity have a cure?

Yes.
Step 1 of 320…

Ronnie on February 25, 2013 at 11:30 PM

Sleep well all…

Know that the DHS has recently purchased millions of hollow-point rounds so that their agents can protect themselves from us.

WestTexasBirdDog on February 25, 2013 at 11:59 PM

How do you think these agencies will fund themselves when the gov goes broke? Property seizures! Of course the woman was happy, she’ll get a gold star and can brag that she seized a big boat from an evil rich jerk, it could bring in cash for the agency.

oryguncon on February 26, 2013 at 12:08 AM

Good job MKH for reinforcing what Sowell writes about.

Sherman1864 on February 26, 2013 at 12:19 AM

What does bureaucratic seizing of a dude’s boat have to do with HOMELAND SECURITY?
Someone notify Michelle Obama. She can help, or something.
MikeknaJ on February 25, 2013 at 9:58 PM

Michelle could have sat on the DHS officer for a while until things got cleared up.

And she could have done it without even leaving the White House.

Sherman1864 on February 26, 2013 at 12:24 AM

Good post by the Dilbert cartoonist.

My personal pet peeve: the reams of fine print that now come for credit cards, mortgages, bank accounts explaining minutia that will never occur in real life.

Now I have to go and read some of my Privacy Update Notices!

PattyJ on February 26, 2013 at 12:28 AM

In the great Northwest, the name/term Buddy is now gender neutral.

bbhack on February 25, 2013 at 10:41 PM

lol, “who’s your Buddy?”

arnold ziffel on February 26, 2013 at 1:45 AM

Socio-economic collapse and wars cure a good deal of complexity. The people participating first hand generally don’t enjoy the process however.

PolAgnostic on February 25, 2013 at 11:12 PM

When the Soviet Union was first formed and large Private homes were being seized for party members, the revolutionaries found that they had to throw a court together to deal with complaints. In one famous incidence a famous Russian lawyer, complete with documentation, was showing to the court why, due to the complexity of the interlocking ownership of his estate, it could not be seized. The revolutionary judge put up with about 20 mins of this and then drew a revolver and shot him in the head and announced that the property was now vacant, case closed. Word spread and people were much more cooperative from then on.

Lesson. It is good when private people reduce complexity. Government reduction in complexity can sometimes be bad.

Bulletchaser on February 26, 2013 at 1:53 AM

900-some new laws in CA EVERY YEAR.

rayra on February 26, 2013 at 3:28 AM

Yes, every idea from every well-meaning bureaucrat has a cost.

MKH you should know by now, there is no such creature as a well-meaning bureaucrat, those creatures only exist in fiction. Bureaucrats are all like Obama the great Destroyer.

SWalker on February 25, 2013 at 10:04 PM

I would have to check your definition of bureaucrat. I know there are many people who work for the federal government who are truly dedicated to doing the right thing for citizens and our Country within the spirit of our Constitution. Are all of them that dedicated? Alas, no. Are there too many federal employees, yes (we need to cut some agencies). But there are indeed good people who work for the federal government at the below policy making level.

Kevin K. on February 26, 2013 at 4:06 AM

I would have to check your definition of bureaucrat. I know there are many people who work for the federal government who are truly dedicated to doing the right thing for citizens and our Country within the spirit of our Constitution.

Kevin K. on February 26, 2013 at 4:06 AM

You can ONLY be referring to the military. Bureaucrats, by definition, aren’t dedicated to anything but making sure the mortgage and credit card bills are paid. They stomp all over our rights and at the end of the day it means nothing to them.

fossten on February 26, 2013 at 7:31 AM

I have a $3.49 Zune mp3 player cable ordered from China on ebay that is still in Customs in San Francisco since August, 2012. I have filed twice with the USPS and twice with Customs.

This mp3 player cable poses a threat to national security. Maybe I should order another one since Big Sis says the borders are closing down if Sequester comes into play.

NoPain on February 26, 2013 at 7:46 AM

One study suggests as many as 5 or 6 additional deaths each year in San Francisco are attributable to the city’s plastic bag ban.

Socratease on February 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM

Ah, God thinning the lib-herd.

socalcon on February 26, 2013 at 8:11 AM

You can’t fix stupid (government).

LizardLips on February 26, 2013 at 8:20 AM

I was living abroad and came back into the US as a visitor. Customs confiscated my watch because I didn’t declare it as purchased abroad. The problem was, I was not a resident of the US and the watch was leaving with me so it wasn’t subject to import duties and declaration.

Same scenario, the new customs agent was so excited to have a “bust”. A senior agent came over and wouldn’t listen to me or look at my documents proving that I was not a resident. I had to either leave my watch or $1,200 fine and customs fees. Plus I was flagged as a smuggler so I was thoroughly searched every time I came into the US thereafter.

I fought it and won, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

bearpaw on February 26, 2013 at 8:47 AM

That Adams rant is so on target. I have to get a card to shop at Rainbow/Cub in order to get a discount on higher priced groceries or better yet, a few cents off the inflated price of gas at a local BP or Holiday.

Fluke you, Cub and Rainbow, BP and Holiday. I’m going to WalMart and or Costgo, where I don’t need a marketing card to get the best price on a product, or a few cents off your inflated 30c profit margin at your gas station.

MNHawk on February 26, 2013 at 9:04 AM

The government never backs down…they will back over a citizen, ruin them, before ever admitting a mistake…

right2bright on February 26, 2013 at 9:30 AM

The problem with complexity is that rich people can afford to hire the sherpas (lawyers, customs experts, tax accountants, regulatory compliance specialists…) to help them out, and people of above-average intelligence can deal with a lot of garden-variety complexity, but the under 115 IQ crowd, who can handle living in a simpler society, increasingly reach a breaking point where they can no longer function.

As Adams says, it’s not any one thing; it’s the total cognitive load of keeping track of all of the rules, the exceptions to the rules, and the exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions… (and the waivers).

The Monster on February 26, 2013 at 9:41 AM

Too bad. Stop complaining, you vote for it, twice I bet.

I guess all the extra Government really sucks when *you* are the one getting shafted by it, eh?

Neo on February 26, 2013 at 9:42 AM

getting a jump on those sequester cuts, ya know ?

/.

CaveatEmpty on February 26, 2013 at 10:31 AM

But there are indeed good people who work for the federal government at the below policy making level.

This makes them more culpable, not less. They’re in a position to see and report when bad people abuse their authority. They’re in a position to push back when the policies make no sense.

Are the co-workers of this idiot DHS agent demanding that she be fired for her illegal conduct? Are they sharing her name, which is public information, with the press to make sure that the rest of us know who we’re dealing with? If not, then they’re the problem.

GalosGann on February 26, 2013 at 11:10 AM

America has no “law” anymore. Laws are binding rules that apply to everyone and can be readily understood by the average citizen. We don’t have any of those anymore, all we have is mountains of codifications and regulations that don’t apply to everyone and can only be understood by the elite that can afford to keep an army of Philadelphia lawyers on payroll.

None of this happened by accident. The idea was to confound the laws and create an atmosphere where you have no rights and you don’t know the law and you simply have to do whatever the authorities say.

That’s another step in converting a free nation into a police state.

Axion on February 26, 2013 at 3:18 PM

To import something as big and expensive as a yacht, most people use a shipping agent familiar with the process of paying duties and clearing customs. Michael Arrington decided to do the job himself, and thus did not know how things get done.

I suspect that things usually get done because the shipping agent knows who to grease and how much to grease them. When a common citizen tries to make the system function without bribes, it all breaks down.

The reason for the glee on the part of the port agent is she knows that she will have physical possession of the item, which means that it will take a much larger bribe to get it back. Cha-ching!

Haiku Guy on February 26, 2013 at 3:21 PM

He screwed up. he should have pulled out his smart phone, started recording the video, then asked her for her name and badge number, then stated the problem, and asked her what she wanted done.

Never play “he said, she said” with a gov’t thug. Play “this is going on You Tube / into my lawyer’s hands for the lawsuit.”

Greg Q on February 26, 2013 at 6:04 PM