Capitalizing on Federal Forfeiture Victories, IJ Continues Fight to End Abuse
We have good news to report about IJ client Kermit Warren, who appeared on the cover of Liberty & Law last October. As readers may recall, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents seized more than $28,000 from the New Orleans grandfather at the Columbus, Ohio, airport while he was traveling to inspect a tow truck for his scrapping business. IJ stepped in to represent Kermit when the federal government filed suit to forfeit his life savings, despite never even charging him with any crime.
Less than three months after IJ filed our case, federal prosecutors dismissed the forfeiture case against Kermit and agreed to clear his name and return his money—just in time for Thanksgiving. This was a great relief to Kermit, who had been left destitute for a year because federal agents treated him like a criminal for traveling with cash.
While Kermit’s case is over, IJ’s fight against federal forfeiture abuse continues. In fact, Kermit remains a member of the class in IJ’s nationwide class action lawsuit challenging unlawful and unconstitutional seizures of cash from air travelers by the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration. We won a first-round victory in that case last spring, when we survived a government motion to dismiss our lawsuit.
Meanwhile, IJ is challenging the federal equitable sharing program, through which state and local law enforcement officials seize property and hand it over to federal agencies for forfeiture under federal law. Agencies then receive up to 80% of the proceeds from these forfeitures back from the federal government. The perverse financial incentive this creates encourages state and local police to circumvent state law protections for property rights.
We are filing cases to end this program, and the video we produced about one recent case—that of U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran Stephen Lara, who was stopped by the Nevada Highway Patrol near Reno, Nevada—has become IJ’s most-watched video ever, with more than 5 million views on YouTube. The video uses bodycam footage to illustrate just how an innocent person can lose everything in a roadside seizure: from when the officers compliment Stephen on his safe driving and admit they don’t think he did anything wrong through the moment they walk away with tens of thousands of dollars of his hard-earned cash.
Finally, IJ continues to press Congress for legislative reform, including passage of the bipartisan Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act. We testified about the urgent need for federal civil forfeiture reform at a hearing in December before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, where every representative who spoke, Democrats and Republicans alike, expressed concerns about forfeiture abuse and an interest in reform.
At that hearing, IJ also debuted our new infographic, “Your Property or Theirs?,” a poster-size flowchart that illustrates the convoluted process property owners face when their property is seized for federal forfeiture. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the subcommittee chair, displayed IJ’s work during his concluding statement, remarking, “You’re really at the mercy of a rather merciless system as the Institute for Justice has documented in this excellent poster, which really demonstrates the byzantine complexity of this Orwellian and Kafkaesque system.”
By fighting for change on multiple fronts, IJ will bring this unjust system to an end.
Dan Alban is an IJ senior attorney.
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