CLEVELAND—One week after an Ohio family’s lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sparked national outrage against the agency’s civil forfeiture practices, a federal judge has ordered the case to trial.
It all began last October, when CBP agents at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport seized $58,100 from Rustem Kazazi, a U.S. citizen, while he was headed to a layover in Newark during a trip back to his native Albania. Rustem, a former Albanian police officer, had worked hard to save up the money with help from his wife, Lejla, and son, Erald, over a dozen years after the family immigrated to Ohio in 2005. Before Rustem could board the plane, CBP agents strip-searched him, interrogated him without a translator and then took his family’s entire life savings, even though they never found anything illegal. They have held the family’s savings for more than seven months, despite never charging anybody with a crime.
Compounding insult and injury, the receipt CBP agents gave Rustem at the time did not note the amount of the seized “U.S. Currency.” CBP later claimed to have taken only $57,330—$770 less than he was actually carrying. Now, amid a lawsuit from the Institute for Justice (IJ) and overwhelming media scrutiny, the government has agreed to return the $57,330 that CBP acknowledges its agents took from the Kazazis. The government is refusing to return of all the money, and the Kazazi family refuses to accept anything less than everything they are owed. Because of the disagreement,a federal district judge in the Northern District of Ohio has ordered the case to trial.
“We’re thrilled the government finally admits that Rustem and his family did nothing wrong, but this is far from over,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with IJ, which represents the Kazazis. “CBP is trying to get rid of our lawsuit to get rid of bad publicity without changing their bad behavior. But the agency’s attempt to effectively steal $770 from our clients after making up fake charges that had no relationship to reality shows how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive.”
CBP never bothered to file a formal forfeiture complaint against the Kazazis’ life savings, and federal law required the agency to return the Kazazis’ money or initiate legal proceedings no later than April 17, 2018. But rather than honor its legal obligations, CBP held the Kazazis’ money more than seven months after the seizure without any explanation. With the government now insisting on a trial to avoid returning the full amount of money they seized from Rustem, it could be well over a year before the Kazazis get all of their life savings back.
Sadly, what happened to the Kazazis is a growing problem. In fiscal year 2014, the Cleveland branch of CBP alone seized at least $82,990 worth of property. Just two years later, in FY 2016, that number had increased to at least $967,503. This problem extends to the national level as well. The Treasury Forfeiture Fund—where CBP and a few other agencies deposit forfeiture proceeds—brought in nearly $500 million in revenues in FY 2017 and had over $2.2 billion in assets at the end of FY 2017.
Beyond the issue of law enforcement agencies effectively trying to steal from innocent people, the government often tries to moot high-profile civil forfeiture lawsuits by returning some or all of the property. 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. 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. Last month, the government returned over $40,000 to Texas nurse Anthonia Nwaorie, an immigrant from Nigeria, after CBP agents at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport seized her entire savings from her luggage last Halloween in a harrowing ordeal eerily similar to Rustem’s. Anthonia was also never charged with any crime.
“This trial presents an extraordinary opportunity to shine a spotlight of accountability on CBP and the federal government’s extensive use of civil forfeiture,” added IJ attorney Johanna Talcott. “Law enforcement routinely and systematically takes billions of dollars from American citizens every year without charging, let alone convicting, anybody with a crime. CBP owes the Kazazis all of the money it took, and the federal government owes the American people a serious reckoning for the abuses inherent in civil forfeiture.”