The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has seized and kept Gerardo Serrano’s truck for the past two years because he forgot he’d left five bullets in his center console. Welcome to the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, where law enforcement can seize your stuff without ever charging you with a crime. Five forgotten bullets are all it takes for the government to argue that someone is an international arms smuggler and rob them of their constitutional rights.
It all started two years ago when Gerardo was crossing the border into Mexico at Eagle Pass, Texas, in his nearly-new Ford F-250 pickup truck. While he waited to cross, he snapped photos to share with his relatives on Facebook. Two CBP agents stopped him at the side of the road. Gerardo, the agents said, was being detained because he’d taken photos.
While detained, Gerardo watched agents search his truck. Finally, one officer gleefully said “we got him” and held up five low-caliber bullets Gerardo had forgotten were in his center console. The agents told him he was free to go, but they were keeping his truck. According to CBP, the truck was subject to civil forfeiture because it was used to transport “munitions of war.“ To get home to Kentucky, Gerardo had to rent a car.
For almost two years, the agency held Gerardo’s truck without ever taking its case before a judge. Gerardo had to pay 10% of the value of the truck—around $3,800—just to contest the seizure. No court has ever approved the seizure of Gerardo’s truck, and Gerardo has never had an opportunity to argue that he should get the truck back. The truck presumably continues to sit in a government impound lot while he continues to make monthly payments.
Gerardo was never convicted of a crime, let alone charged with one. Indeed, forgetting a few bullets in your car is not a crime. For taking pictures, Gerardo’s truck was seized under a law designed to punish international arms smugglers, not innocent Americans visiting family in Mexico.
Now Gerardo is done waiting. He has joined with the Institute for Justice to sue to get his property back. And Gerardo also is filing suit on behalf of a class of other U.S. citizens who have had their vehicles seized by Customs and Border Protection, seeking an order requiring the agency to provide a prompt post-seizure hearing whenever they take vehicles for civil forfeiture.