The Institute for Justice long has fought battles over cash that federal agents confiscate from travelers – and want to keep because it often goes into their budgets.
But given that in many such cases, no criminal charges ever are filed, the forfeiture is suspect, and in many cases likely inappropriate.
The Institute already has begun litigating a class action lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Authority over their confiscations.
But in the short-term, officials there have announced the resolution of a case involving the confiscation of a New Orleans man’s life savings – and now its return.
The organization explained Kermit Warren, a New Orleans grandfather and head deacon of his Lower Ninth Ward church, lost his savings – the amount wasn’t released – to DEA agents at the Columbus, Ohio, airport, through which he was traveling.
He was returning home – with his savings – after inspecting a tow truck that he had considered purchasing for his business.
The DEA filed a “civil forfeiture” case against the money, an odd federal procedure that essentially contends that the money is criminal, but Warren never was charged with anything.
Nevertheless, the government confirmed its intention to keep the money, until the IJ got involved and defended his property.
“I’m relieved that I will finally get my hard-earned savings back after a year of suffering,” he said, in a statement released by his lawyers. “But what happened to me was wrong. The officers and prosecutors treated me like a criminal when all I was trying to do was improve my business and my life. For a year, they’ve left me struggling to survive a pandemic and a hurricane without my savings. I did nothing wrong, but until the law is changed so that everyone is protected, I am not going to have cash in my house anymore.”
The U.S. attorney’s office in Ohio, with the cash in federal possession, had claimed the right to keep the cash.
The office’s complaint “was based on vague innuendo and baseless accusations that the money was connected to drugs,” the IJ reported.
But when the Institute for Justice announced its participation in the case, federal officials agreed to dismiss the case, and agree that Warren did nothing wrong.
“We’re relieved that Kermit is getting his hard-earned money back, but it’s outrageous that he was left destitute for an entire year for no good reason due to the callous, profit-driven actions of DEA and federal prosecutors,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “Kermit’s case highlights how the federal government abuses civil forfeiture. It seizes cash on the flimsiest of pretexts—traveling with cash at an airport—and effectively forces people to prove their own innocence to get their money back. And even in a best-case scenario, it can take over a year for them to get their property back.”
Taking cash while traveling is perfectly legal, no matter the amount, but federal officers “routinely seize large amounts of cash at airports.”
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