Customs Finally Returns Money to Texas Nurse, Class Action Over Civil Forfeiture Practices Continues

Institute for Justice · May 29, 2018

HOUSTON—After weeks of international outcry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) finally returned $41,377 to Texas nurse Anthonia Nwaorie without interest and without an apology. CBP’s furtive move came seven months after the agency seized the money at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), and one month after Anthonia filed a federal lawsuit demanding its return. CBP, which never charged her with any crime, had initially demanded the Houston-area nurse sign a “Hold Harmless” agreement waiving her civil rights before returning the money. Anthonia refused this unlawful and unconstitutional demand and instead teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of other victims of the practice.

CBP’s move marks the latest in a long trend of government agencies attempting damage control in response to bad publicity over a high-profile civil forfeiture lawsuit. However, the unannounced return of Anthonia’s money does not moot the class action lawsuit because Anthonia is the lead plaintiff and class representative for an entire class of victims harmed by CBP’s unconstitutional practices.  Anthonia is also suing for interest the government owes her for holding her money for more than half a year, and to be removed from CBP’s list of passengers subjected to additional, intrusive screenings at customs.

IJ attorneys have already been in contact with some of the hundreds or thousands of victims of CBP’s illegal requirement that people sign away their civil rights to get back property the agency is legally obligated to return, and IJ attorneys are still working to identify others. IJ encourages other potential class members—whether they signed the hold harmless agreement or not—to contact IJ attorneys Dan Alban and Anya Bidwell.

“We’re thrilled that Anthonia finally has her money back, but justice delayed is justice denied.  If a nurse on a humanitarian mission isn’t safe from civil forfeiture, no one is safe from civil forfeiture.” said Dan Alban, an attorney with IJ, which represents Anthonia and the other class members in the lawsuit. “IJ has been fighting the abuses of civil forfeiture for decades, and this is a classic government attempt to moot a high-profile lawsuit to mitigate bad publicity. But this lawsuit will continue because CBP has not fixed the underlying problem and continues systematically abusing people’s civil rights through civil forfeiture.”

One of the most egregious examples of this common government tactic came in a civil forfeiture case in Connecticut in 2016. The government held money seized from a Norwich baker for three years, but agreed to return the property just hours after IJ filed a case demanding its return. The IRS continued a retaliatory fishing expedition into the bakery’s financial records, but ended that effort as well just two weeks after IJ filed suit. IJ attorneys also encountered this tactic when representing innocent civil forfeiture victims against local law enforcement in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, and most recently in Wyoming.

Last fall, IJ filed a different federal class action in Texas against CBP’s use of civil forfeiture after the agency seized a truck from Kentucky farmer Gerardo Serrano and held it for two years without charging him with a crime. The agency returned Gerardo’s truck after IJ filed the lawsuit, but that case also remains ongoing.

Anthonia’s ordeal began last Halloween when she was traveling from her home in the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas to her native Nigeria to open a medical clinic for women and children in need of help. Anthonia, an American citizen and grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. in 1982, had saved up over $30,000 for years from her work as a registered nurse, and was taking her savings to Nigeria to open her clinic. She was also taking funds from her brother and other American family members to support relatives in Nigeria. But, when she was boarding her international flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, CBP interrogated her, cut open her luggage and seized all of the money she was carrying.

Anthonia was never charged with any crime. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Texas also declined to pursue civil forfeiture of her money and let the 90-day deadline to file a forfeiture complaint pass without action. Under federal statute, CBP was required to “promptly release the property.” But instead of following the law, CBP threatened to claim Anthonia “abandoned” her money and keep it without even giving her a hearing, unless she signed a “Hold Harmless Release Agreement” waiving her rights—including her right to interest and her First Amendment right to sue CBP over anything related to the seizure—in order to get her money back. But amid an avalanche of critical media attention, CBP reversed course and unceremoniously mailed Anthonia a check for the amount of the seized cash.

“I’m glad to have my money back, but this isn’t over,” said Anthonia, who has already committed to work at a hospital in Massachusetts this summer, but plans to return to Nigeria in the fall to finally build a medical clinic to provide healthcare to vulnerable women and children. “So many people in Nigeria have suffered needlessly because of this year-long delay in opening my clinic. I’m going to keep fighting because so many people lack the resources to fight back against injustice, and I want to make sure nobody else has to go through what I’ve been through. ”

Anthonia and IJ are suing to stop CBP from bullying people like her into signing away their constitutional rights. The ongoing class action will represent Anthonia and other innocent victims of CBP’s unlawful and unconstitutional requirement that people sign away their rights to get back property the agency is legally required to return. IJ is asking the federal court to put an end to CBP’s behavior and declare it unlawful and unconstitutional, to void any “Hold Harmless” agreements signed by class members, and to order CBP to return seized property to any class members whose property was not returned because they did not sign an agreement surrendering their constitutional rights.

“CBP returning Anthonia’s money highlights how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive and has disastrous effects on innocent people, even when the process supposedly ‘works’ as designed,” explained IJ attorney Anya Bidwell. “Anthonia was never charged with a crime, but the government kept her money for months anyway. Now, when slapped with a lawsuit and rigorous media scrutiny, the government yet again wants to make an embarrassing case go away without addressing how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive. We’re not going to fall for it or let them get away with it, and neither should the American people.”