PHOENIX—Today, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that Jerry Johnson may contest the civil forfeiture of his $39,500, seized from him at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. In August 2020, Jerry flew to Phoenix with the intention of returning home with a semi-truck from an Arizona auction house, but instead he returned to Charlotte without his money and without a truck. Even though he was never charged with a crime, an Arizona trial court ruled that Jerry failed to prove the cash was his and, therefore, could not contest the civil forfeiture of his money. Jerry’s appeal was taken up by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm.
“Today’s decision points out the obvious: Jerry Johnson properly proved ownership of his money and has the right to defend it in court,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “The scales are already tipped in the government’s favor in civil forfeiture, but the lower court went outside the bounds of Arizona law when it forced Jerry to prove his own innocence. We are glad that Jerry will have his day in court to defend against the unjust forfeiture of his life savings.”
In the decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that, “This was a not a trivial or technical error”—the lower court’s ruling violated Jerry’s right to due process. The decision further affirms that “Johnson in fact proved he owned the money,” granting Jerry a complete victory on his appeal.
The government has 30 days to appeal the Court of Appeals’ ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court. If it does not appeal, the case will be sent back to the trial court, where the government will either have to prove that Jerry’s money was connected to criminal activity or return it.
“It’s wrong that I could lose my money even though I’ve never been charged with a crime,” said Jerry. “Losing my savings has been hard on my trucking company; it kept me from expanding my vehicle fleet at a critical time during the pandemic. But it’s a big relief that I’ll have a chance to get my money back.”
Following media attention on Jerry’s case, the Arizona Legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 2810, a bill to reform civil forfeiture that Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law. The reform touched on several issues related to the case, requiring a conviction in criminal court to forfeit property in civil court in most instances and banning officers from coercing owners into waiving or relinquishing their rights to property. Jerry was coerced into signing such a waiver after being interrogated and threatened with arrest at the airport.
The Institute for Justice protects property rights nationwide and has defended flyers across the United States after law enforcement seized their cash. Last year, IJ helped a New Orleans grandfather successfully fight for his life savings after it was seized at an Ohio airport. A nationwide class action lawsuit filed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over cash seizures at airports won a first-round victory last April and is currently in the discovery phase. IJ also documented the scale of airport forfeiture in a 2020 report “Jetway Robbery? Homeland Security and Cash Seizures at Airports.” The report showed that Homeland Security agencies alone seized over $2 billion from flyers between 2000 and 2016.