Trucker Gets Savings Back After Long-Haul Litigation

Dan Alban
Dan Alban  ·  May 19, 2023

IJ’s fight to end civil forfeiture is multipronged: Simultaneously, we fight in court to establish legal precedent that protects property rights, publicize outrageous abuses, and advocate for legislative reforms to curtail the practice. This three-part strategy requires long-term strategic thinking and staying committed for the long haul. 

Few cases exemplify that better than our recent victory on behalf of Jerry Johnson, which resulted not only in the return of his money—with 9% interest—but also in a published appellate opinion prohibiting Arizona courts from requiring property owners to prove their innocence to contest a forfeiture. Jerry’s case was also a catalyst for Arizona’s 2021 forfeiture reforms, which imposed a criminal conviction prerequisite for civil forfeiture.

How did a North Carolina trucker end up doing so much good in Arizona? In August 2020, Jerry was flying to a Phoenix auction house to buy a third semi-truck for his small trucking business. Cash is king in the market for used trucks, so Jerry brought $39,500 he had saved and borrowed from relatives. 

But Jerry was stopped at baggage claim by Phoenix detectives who searched his luggage and found the cash, interrogated him, and seized his money. Yet Jerry wasn’t arrested or charged with any crime. 

Unlike most forfeiture victims, Jerry managed to hire an attorney to contest the forfeiture. Unfortunately, after his first hearing, the judge ruled Jerry could not contest the forfeiture of cash taken directly from his luggage because Jerry could not prove he was an innocent owner of the money. Jerry’s money was ordered forfeited to the state. 

But that ruling got the law backward, and IJ recognized it immediately. We leapt to Jerry’s aid, filing an appeal pointing out that requiring property owners to prove their innocence would circumvent the government’s burden under Arizona law to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property is connected to a crime. 

At the same time, we publicized Jerry’s case, which alerted the Arizona Legislature that reforms were needed to protect innocent property owners from civil forfeiture. With strong advocacy from IJ, those bipartisan reforms passed in 2021. 

Meanwhile, Jerry’s appeal continued. At oral argument, the three-judge panel subjected the state’s attorney to a withering barrage of questions. The presiding judge even exclaimed, “I’m sorry if it seems harsh that the state should actually have to come forward with evidence before it takes people’s money away at the airport!” 

Six months later, the court of appeals ruled unanimously in Jerry’s favor, but in an unpublished opinion that would not have precedential value. So IJ filed a motion to publish the opinion, and Jerry continued patiently waiting for his money, because he didn’t want what happened to him to happen to anyone else. After another six months passed, Jerry’s opinion was published, and our precedent was locked in. 

Having lost twice on appeal, Arizona finally threw in the towel. Two and a half years after the seizure, the state returned Jerry’s money and was also ordered to pay him 9% interest. 

Thanks to Jerry’s commitment to litigating for the long haul, we were able to extend property rights protections in Arizona through both the courts and the Legislature. Using this same approach, IJ remains committed to ending civil forfeiture across the nation.

Dan Alban is an IJ senior attorney.

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