WOULD you risk serving 10 years in jail for an old Holden ute?
This is the situation confronting Travis McKimmie, a UK-based Australian whose barn-find HG ute was seized by French Customs while being transported across Europe last month after a small amount of cannabis was found aboard.
Travis, who originally hails from Walwa, Victoria, is fast running out of options to save the classic hay-hauler after receiving a rejection letter from French Customs this week.
“When I got this letter it was like my heart had been ripped out,” Travis told SM. “I’d built my hopes up. I had a feeling that I was going to get the ute back; I was pretty positive that common sense would prevail.
“I wish they could just see the situation for what it is: a small bag of weed someone else has left in the back of an old car. Taking my car away just seems way over the top.”
The endangered 1970 Holden ute was initially impounded by French border officials at Calais on 14 March as it was being trailered from the Netherlands – where it had been in shed storage for the past 12 years – to Travis’s home in Hartlepool in the north-east of England.
Having found 20.1 grams of cannabis onboard (which Travis believes must have been there throughout the ute’s 12-year hibernation) French officials inspected the vehicle further, whereupon they discovered suspicious cavities beneath the rear tray, which they ascertained could be used for smuggling contraband.
What the officials perhaps failed to realise, however, is that Travis’s ute is a stock example, and has not been modified in any way. General Motors-Holden used sedan and station wagon floorpans to build its utes from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s – a not-so-uncommon practice in vehicle manufacturing – which led to its utes having what French Customs have called “hiding places”.
“I tried to explain to them that this is how Holden utes were made but I don’t know whether it’s had any impact,” Travis said. “The thing is most cars on the road have compartments that could be classed as ‘concealed’ – spaces in the boot with panels that pop off and things like that. So most cars have ‘hiding places’, if that’s how you want to class it.”
French Customs have since informed Travis that they have taken possession of his ute for good (under the terms of Article 323.2, apparently). According to French Customs Code, the offence of unlawful importation of goods calls for “the confiscation of the goods as well as the means of transportation and any items used to conceal the fraud”.
The letter states: “…we cannot grant your request to return the vehicle, as it has been seized and has hiding places”.
The letter goes on to say that the driver of the vehicle transporter, a Mr Hogg, signed a settlement agreement whereby he abandoned the ute in return for receiving only a fine – which amounted to €70 for the cannabis as well as €200 for fraud due to the concealed nature of its transportation.
“The truck driver has just signed the document and paid the fine so he could get on his way, because he was carrying two other cars besides mine,” Travis explained. “So instead of contacting me when he was stopped by Customs, he’s just offloaded my car to get away, and, since the car isn’t registered, it made it easy for the paperwork to claim that it’s his. He only contacted me after he’d been let go and by then there was f***-all I could do about it.”
Underlining the farcical nature of the situation, the letter suggests that should Travis wish to take the matter further, he would need to “challenge this settlement agreement with Mr Hogg on the grounds that he is not the owner of the inspected means of transport and therefore not responsible for the cited customs offence”. Should he do so, not only would he risk having to pay back the money for the fines but also “a prison sentence of up to 10 years”!
“It’s absolutely crazy,” said Travis. “If there had been 10 or 20 kilos of weed found I wouldn’t have even challenged it, but 20 grams? That’s considered personal use. I just can’t see how you’d get 10 years jail for 20 grams.”
Travis has since reached out to the High Commission of Australia in London, who rejected his pleas for assistance in trying to save the car.
“They said if I was in jail they could help me, but because it’s ‘just a car’, apparently it’s a civil matter and it’s something I need to sort out myself,” he said. “Everyone is telling me to get a lawyer but I haven’t got that sort of money. Plus, I’m presuming I’ll get slapped with extra costs for storing the car throughout this appeals process, and I have no idea how much that might be. At some point I have to say ‘enough’.”
Travis still holds out hope of finding outside help to take his appeal further, but at this stage it seems a slim chance. Ultimately he may be forced to swallow a particularly bitter pill, knowing that not only has the law and red tape triumphed over common sense, but a classic Australian car will be destroyed as a result.
UPDATE: The French authorities have relented and Travis now has his ute back! Read the happy story here.