J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 3, 2020

WHAT:            Appeals Court Hearing
WHEN:            Tuesday, February 4th, 2020 at 9:00 A.M.

U.S. Court of Appeals for The Fifth Circuit
600 Camp Street
New Orleans, LA 70130

Four years ago, while Gerardo Serrano was waiting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, he snapped a few photos to share on Facebook. He did not know it at the time, but the events that followed would ultimately take him to the steps of the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in New Orleans, where he’ll join attorneys from the Institute for Justice (IJ) tomorrow to hold the federal government accountable for violating Gerardo’s constitutional rights.

Gerardo’s case centers around the government’s unconstitutional use of civil forfeiture to seize his Ford F-250 and keep it for more than two years. After Gerardo took the photos, two CBP agents demanded that he give them the password to his phone. When Gerardo refused, telling the agents to get a warrant, they dragged him out of the truck and proceeded to search it. Finally, one officer gleefully said “we got him” and held up five low-caliber bullets Gerardo had forgotten were in the bottom of his center console. The agents told him he was free to go, but they were keeping his truck for attempting to transport “munitions of war” through the border.

For over two years, the agency held Gerardo’s truck without ever taking the case before a judge or filing a forfeiture complaint. Then, in 2017, Gerado partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a federal class action lawsuit against the CBP on behalf of everyone whose car was illegally detained after being seized at the border. A month later, the agency returned his truck and the bullets (the so-called munitions of war) and also asked the court to dismiss his lawsuit. The judge agreed to dismiss the case without requiring that the government pay damages to Gerardo or declare that CBP must provide prompt hearings when it seizes cars. Gerardo and IJ appealed the dismissal—and that appeal will be heard tomorrow.

“The government cannot seize someone’s property, hold it for years and then pretend like no harm was done once they return it,” said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “When the government breaks the law, as it did when it held Gerardo’s truck without any judicial process, then it must be held accountable.”