Laredo, Tx.—Yesterday afternoon Gerardo Serrano climbed into the cab of his Ford F-250 truck, put the key in the ignition, and turned it over. To his surprise, it started, which was shocking given that the truck had been baking in the West Texas desert sun for the last two years.
More than two years ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used civil forfeiture to illegally seize Serrano’s truck at the border crossing in Eagle Pass, Texas. For two years Gerardo waited for the agency’s lawyers to file the paperwork necessary for Gerardo to begin to fight its illegal seizure.
Last month Gerardo decided he’d waited long enough. He partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a federal class action lawsuit demanding his day in court–and seeking a nationwide injunction to prevent similar delays in other cases.
The lawsuit clearly got the government’s attention. Late last week CBP lawyers told Gerardo he could pick up his truck whenever he wanted.
“The government cannot illegally seize and keep someone’s property for two years, and then give it back and pretend like no harm was done,” said Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. “We will continue to fight to see that Gerardo is made whole, and to make sure this never happens again.”
During the two years the government held Gerardo’s truck, he continued to make monthly payments of $672 for a truck he could not drive. He paid $700 per year to insure the truck, and he spent over $1,000 to register the truck with the State of Kentucky. He also spent thousands of dollars on rental cars.
Gerardo also posted a bond of $3,804.99, at CBP’s direction, as a condition of requesting a hearing before a judge. That hearing was never provided, but CBP still holds the amount of the bond.
“I’m thrilled to have my truck back,” said Gerardo, “But I’d like somebody to apologize for taking it in the first place.”
In addition to seeking damages, the lawsuit also seeks an order requiring CBP to provide a prompt hearing whenever it seizes vehicles. It is CBP’s current practice to hold vehicles for months or years without taking its case before a judge.
“No judge would have approved the seizure of Gerardo’s truck,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “And that’s precisely why CBP is giving it back. We’re just saying the agency should have to explain themselves to a judge promptly after it first takes the property.”