Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · April 13, 2021

PHOENIX—Jerry Johnson flew to Phoenix with $39,500 and 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. After his $39,500 in cash was seized by law enforcement at the Phoenix airport, Jerry fought for its return in court.

Under Arizona law, there is a two-step process. First, the property owner has the burden to show ownership, and, second, the government has the burden to prove that the money was connected to a crime. But instead, an Arizona Superior Court judge combined these two steps and placed the whole burden on Jerry and none on the government. The judge ruled that Jerry failed to prove he owned the cash that was seized from him because he could not prove the cash wasn’t connected to any crimes. Now, Jerry is teaming up with the Institute for Justice to appeal the civil forfeiture of his money and ensure that no one has to prove their innocence to keep their own property.

“Jerry Johnson did nothing wrong by flying to Phoenix with cash, yet law enforcement is trying to keep his money without ever charging him with a crime,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “In Arizona, prosecutors are required to prove through clear and convincing evidence that money is connected to criminal activity before the property can be forfeited. But instead of holding the state to its burden of proving guilt, the court required Jerry to prove his own innocence. If the result in Jerry’s case stands, it would create a dangerous loophole, undermining Arizona’s efforts to protect property owners.”

Jerry Johnson owns a small trucking company, lives outside Charlotte, North Carolina, and was looking to purchase a third truck for his fleet. After finding the model of a Peterbilt semi-truck he had been looking for at the Phoenix location of Ritchie Bros. auto auction, he scraped together his savings, borrowed money from family and purchased an airline ticket. Hoping to cut the best possible deal on the truck, Jerry brought $39,500 in cash with him, splitting it between his carry-on and checked luggage.

When Jerry collected his checked luggage, he was met by Phoenix airport police, who questioned him, searched his bags and accused him of laundering money for drugs. As is often the case, Transportation Security Administration luggage screeners apparently alerted Phoenix police to the presence of cash in Jerry’s luggage. Jerry was interrogated and told that unless he signed a “Disclaimer of Ownership” form, he would be arrested. Not fully understanding that the form said he was surrendering his ownership of his money, Jerry signed this on-the-spot “waiver” under duress, believing he would be arrested and sent to jail if he refused.

“I flew to Phoenix thinking I could get a good deal on a truck that would allow me to expand my business,” said Jerry. “But instead, the police took my money without ever charging me with a crime. It’s been a struggle to lose my savings, and now my business is barely getting by. I’m fighting for my money, but I’m also fighting because this should never happen to anyone else.”

IJ is currently appealing Jerry’s forfeiture case to reverse the court’s improper finding that Jerry did not own the money, because he couldn’t prove his innocent ownership of the money. The judge did not require the government to prove anything or to meet its burden of showing a connection with criminal activity. Neither Jerry nor any other individual has been charged with a crime connected with the money.

“Jerry’s case demonstrates again the basic injustice of civil forfeiture,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “Police and prosecutors should not be able to take property when they haven’t even charged anyone with a crime. Arizona lawmakers should push forward with proposed reforms and stop the incentives law enforcement has today to seize and forfeit money without probable cause.”

The Institute for Justice protects property rights nationwide and has defended flyers across the United States after law enforcement seized their cash. A class action lawsuit against the TSA and Drug Enforcement Administration was recently granted an early victory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When IJ sued on behalf of flyers in Houston and Cleveland, the government returned their money. 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.