September 28, 2017

What comes to mind when you hear “munitions of war”? Whatever it is, it is likely not five low-caliber bullets—unless you are a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent. In that case, five bullets might be all the excuse you need to seize and forfeit a man’s truck.

In September 2015, CBP agents seized Gerardo Serrano’s Ford F-250 pickup truck using civil forfeiture because they found five bullets in the glove box. Nearly two years later, the agency still holds Gerardo’s truck, although no judge has approved the seizure. Now Gerardo has joined with IJ to get his property back—and to rein in CBP’s use of civil forfeiture.

Gerardo, a U.S. citizen born in Chicago, lives on a ranch in rural Kentucky where he raises pigs, chickens and turkeys. Like many rural Americans, he sometimes carries a gun in his truck.

When Gerardo decided to visit Mexico to see family, he left his gun behind. But he had no idea five bullets were still sitting in the glove box.

Almost two years have gone by and CBP has never given Gerardo a day in court.

When CBP agents found the bullets at a border stop, Gerardo heard an agent cry out, “We got him!”

Gerardo showed the agents his concealed-carry permit. He told the agents he had forgotten the bullets were in the truck, and he offered to turn around and leave the border area if the bullets were a problem. He even offered to let the agents keep the bullets.

The agents told Gerardo he was free to go, but they were keeping his truck.

CBP claims Gerardo’s truck is subject to civil forfeiture because five bullets are enough to make him an international arms smuggler. It says the truck was used to transport munitions of war. That phrase is actually in the notice CBP sent to Gerardo that let him know it was keeping his truck.

Even worse, almost two years have gone by, and CBP has never given Gerardo a day in court. CBP told Gerardo that if he wanted to see a judge, he had to post a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of the property. So Gerardo sent a check for almost $4,000. CBP promptly cashed the check, but Gerardo is still waiting for a hearing.

This kind of outrageous delay is common with civil forfeiture. The government takes months or years to bring a case to court and in the meantime it offers to settle for just a portion of the seized amount. In Gerardo’s case, the government suggested he send another check as an “offer in compromise.” It would then decide whether the amount was enough to give back the truck.

Many property owners feel forced to settle. But Gerardo—with IJ’s help—is fighting back.

Gerardo has filed suit, demanding the return of his property and an order requiring CBP to provide a prompt hearing whenever it seizes property. If successful, IJ and Gerardo will ensure other property owners get their day in court—without waiting years. That way, next time CBP decides to use civil forfeiture to keep someone’s truck and abuse its authority, it will have to explain itself to a judge.

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