July 31, 2018

In May, IJ filed back-to-back lawsuits against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), challenging the agency’s predatory forfeiture practices at America’s airports. Both cases resulted in swift victories for our clients, and now both cases will continue in federal court with the goal of establishing broad precedent curtailing CBP’s mistreatment of innocent air travelers.

In the first case, IJ filed a class action lawsuit against CBP on behalf of Texas nurse Anthonia Nwaorie—and anyone else who has suffered a nightmarish experience like hers. Anthonia had her savings seized at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport as she was boarding an international flight to Nigeria, where she planned to open a free clinic for women and children.

Anthonia ran afoul of an obscure currency reporting requirement because she—like most Americans—was unaware that she was supposed to report that she was leaving the country with more than $10,000. CBP seized the $41,377 she was carrying, most of which was destined for her clinic. But the agency never charged her with a crime. Agents simply took her money and sent her on her way.

Both cases will continue in federal court with the goal of establishing broad precedent curtailing CBP’s mistreatment of innocent air travelers.

Anthonia immediately demanded that the government return her cash, but four months went by without any action from the agency. The government continued to hold her money even when the legal deadline to file a forfeiture case had passed. Finally, Anthonia got a letter from CBP saying that it would return her money if she signed a “hold harmless release agreement.” If she did not sign, the letter threatened automatic forfeiture of her property. But if she did sign, she would be waiving her constitutional right to sue the government, as well as her right to interest and attorney’s fees.

Instead of giving in to CBP’s demands, Anthonia filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of herself and others whom CBP put in the same position: forced to choose between getting their property back and surrendering their rights. Federal law requires a seizing agency that misses its deadlines to “promptly release the property.” IJ’s lawsuit challenges CBP’s authority to make any demands of property owners as a condition of that release—especially conditions that force individuals to waive their constitutional rights.

After we sued, CBP quickly returned Anthonia’s money, without conditions, in a bid to moot our case. But the class action claims will go forward on behalf of Anthonia and all those like her who the agency has bullied.

Our second case comes from Ohio, where CBP seized $58,100 from Rustem Kazazi, a naturalized American citizen, as he was traveling from his home in Cleveland to his native Albania. He was carrying cash—saved over 13 years of working as a janitor—and intended to use the money to assist his family and purchase a vacation home for him and his wife Lejla. Like Anthonia, he did not reach his destination.

After detaining, interrogating, and even stripping Rustem naked for a full-body search, CBP agents took every penny of his savings. He was never arrested or charged with any crime. And like Anthonia, he waited months for his day in court, only for the government to miss its deadline to file a case against the money.

When IJ filed on Rustem’s behalf in federal court, the government immediately agreed to return $57,330, with interest. But more than $700 had gone missing. Rustem and his family are demanding that the government return every penny, and we are preparing to go to trial in December to vindicate Rustem’s rights and to hold the agency accountable.

Both Anthonia’s and Rustem’s cases highlight how inherently abusive civil forfeiture is. Even when the process “works,” innocent owners are deprived of their property for months or even years, only getting it back when they sign away their rights—or file a federal lawsuit. IJ will keep litigating these cases, and bringing others like them, until that abuse ends.

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