Civil forfeiture turns bedrock principles of our legal system on their heads. It ensnares people in byzantine legal procedures designed to result in uncontested forfeitures, and it forces Americans to prove their own innocence to keep their property. That is exactly where Kermit Warren, a Hurricane Katrina survivor from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, finds himself: battling the federal government for his hard-earned and much-needed life savings.
Kermit is a grandfather, the head deacon of his church, and an entrepreneur. He has worked many jobs, including Katrina recovery with the Army Corps of Engineers. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he lost his shoeshine job at the Roosevelt Hotel. Luckily, Kermit had hauled scrap as a side gig for years. He had the know-how to turn that into a full-time business with his son Leo, who was also laid off.
To make their business a reality, they needed a tow truck. Over the years, Kermit had diligently set aside cash every week. Those savings coupled with a small inheritance meant he had nearly $30,000 to dedicate to his venture, which he used to negotiate a favorable cash price for a tow truck near Columbus, Ohio. He and Leo flew north, planning to drive the truck home. After inspecting the vehicle, however, they realized the truck was not right for them. So they went to the airport and bought one-way tickets back to New Orleans.
Just before they boarded, three Drug Enforcement Administration officers approached them and began asking accusatory questions about the cash they carried. Thanks to the DEA’s “see cash, seize cash” policy—which IJ is challenging separately in a nationwide federal class action lawsuit—the officers were uninterested in Kermit’s answers or in evidence of the source and purpose of his money. They took his cash, gave him a receipt, and sent him on his way.
To learn more about civil forfeiture abuse, check out IJ’s report Policing for Profit, 3rd edition.
Neither Kermit nor Leo has been charged with any crime, but the government is trying to keep the money through civil forfeiture based on flimsy, vague allegations that do not tie Kermit or his cash to any wrongdoing. This is wrong: The government must provide evidence of criminality to forfeit property. If it can keep cash based on the kind of mere innuendo offered in Kermit’s case, there are virtually no limits to the power civil forfeiture affords the government—or to its destruction of the presumption of innocence.
Making matters worse, the DEA and other federal agencies have a strong incentive to forfeit as much as possible: Forfeiture proceeds are kept by the Department of Justice and doled back out to law enforcement, allowing them to self-fund without congressional oversight. And, unsurprisingly, the people often targeted are those with the fewest resources with which to fight back.
Fortunately, Kermit has IJ to stand with him in his battle for his life savings. Together, we are committed not only to getting his property back but also to ending civil forfeiture for everyone.
Dan Alban is an IJ senior attorney and Jaba Tsitsuashvili is an IJ attorney.