By LAMECH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE American wife of a local grocery store owner appeared in Magistrate’s Court yesterday seeking to change her plea in a $27,000 failure to declare case.
With the help of her attorney and a Chinese interpreter, Chung Chang Chen of New York sought to admit she was guilty of making a false declaration to a US Customs officer on April 14, 2011, while returning to the United States from the Bahamas with cash in excess of $10,000.
Attorney Keith Seymour told the court his client’s change of heart was not related to the facts of the case, but rather inspired by her desire to bring the matter to an end so she could travel to New York and London to visit family.
But Magistrate Guilimina Archer did not accept this explanation, saying the guilty plea was inadmissible.
Chen is accused of making a false declaration to a US officer and failing to declare cash.
According to the charges, $10 of the $27,000 allegedly found on her person or in her bags was Bahamian currency; the rest was American.
Until yesterday, Chen has maintained her innocence.
Prosecutor Supt Samuel McKinney explained the charges.
He claimed Chen presented herself to a US Customs and Borders Protection officer, “who interviewed the defendant and asked her whether or not she was carrying into the US, currency over $10,000.
“The defendant stated to the officer she was not carrying currency over $10,000 into the US.
“She also presented a Customs declaration form which had a check mark indicating she was not taking currency more than $10,000 into the US.
“A piece of luggage belonging to the defendant was x-rayed and the image showed an unusual bulge in the luggage. This aroused the suspicion of the US custom’s officer,” the prosecutor said.
He said $4,460 was found in this suitcase and inspection of a second bag turned up $19,500 in two brown card board boxes.
The remaining cash, $3,856, was found in her “undergarment,” Supt McKinney said, adding: “She stated to the officer she had placed the money in her undergarment for safety.”
Magistrate Archer asked the defendant if she agreed or disagreed with the facts read by Supt McKinney.
Through the interpreter, Chen said she agreed.
However, the interpreter added: “She did not know about the law that she could carry over $10,000.”
“Was she not asked by the US officer if she was carrying over $10,000?” the magistrate asked.
Chen said no.
“She was not asked? And she did not fill out the form saying she was carrying less than $10,000?” the magistrate asked.
The interpreter repeated Chen’s answer that she didn’t know about the law.
In response to further questioning by the magistrate, Chen admitted she has been to the Bahamas before April 2011, that she has been coming to the country often for about ten years, and that she has filled out a declaration form with out help.
However, the accused said she had never been asked if she was carrying more than $10,000 before.
“Well, based on her statement to the court, I can’t accept her guilty plea,” the magistrate said.
Mr Seymour said Chen – who has ties to the Bahamas because her husband owns Lucky’s Food Store – was changing her plea because she wants her travel documents back so she can see her children in Brooklyn and her parents in London.
When he added that the change was also being made in light of the length of time the matter was taking before the courts, the magistrate asked the attorney if she was hearing him correctly.
Mr Seymour quickly corrected himself, explaining that he was not assigning any blame to the judge.
Magistrate Archer then asked Mr Seymour if it was correct that his client’s guilty plea was motivated by a priority outside the facts of the case. The attorney said such pleas are a common occurrence.
“As you know, counsel,” Magistrate Archer responded, “you know very well that is not a basis upon a guilty plea being accepted.”
He agreed, but said he was only being honest with the court, based on the instructions of his client.
“Her thing is, she wants it to end,” he said.
“There is a proper process for it to end,” Magistrate Archer answered.
The attorney then asked if his client’s travel documents could be returned.
“Who has her travel documents? The court never seized any travel documents with respect to this defendant. From what I see in her [docket], she was granted a cash bail by the magistrate who initially arraigned her,” the judge said.
Supt McKinney said he knew nothing about Chen’s documents being seized and Magistrate Archer told Mr Seymour he would have to take the matter up with police if the documents were confiscated during her arrest.
She adjourned the matter to November 13 at 10am.
When the interpreter translated the last exchange for Chen, the accused replied: “I got come back again?”
The magistrate said yes and repeated the trial date.