Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) announced that it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a rehearing following its dismissal of Anthonia Nwaorie’s class action lawsuit that seeks to stop the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency’s practice of bullying people into signing away their constitutional rights. In dismissing the case, the court erroneously ruled that CBP had already begun the process of returning Anthonia’s wrongfully seized money when she filed her lawsuit, which is not true. In fact, CBP only initiated the process of returning the money once Anthonia sued. There is no evidence to suggest that she would have received her money if she hadn’t filed a lawsuit.
“Anthonia’s case highlights the crucial importance of the court getting both the facts and law right,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “By ruling that CBP had already begun the process of returning Anthonia’s money when she filed her lawsuit, the court is ignoring the reality that CBP only acted after she sued. Without her legal action, Anthonia may never have seen her money again. This case is about a grandmother standing up to the unconstitutional practices of CBP and ensuring that others in similar situations can reclaim their property without being forced to waive their rights.”
IJ is representing Anthonia Nwaorie, a registered nurse from Katy, Texas, whose $41,377 was seized by CBP officers as she was boarding a flight to Nigeria in 2017 on her way to use the money to open a medical clinic for underserved people in her home village. Unbeknownst to Anthonia, federal law requires travelers to file a report when leaving the country with more than $10,000 in currency. CBP seized her money over a technical violation of this obscure federal law, despite Anthonia never being charged with any crime. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to pursue civil forfeiture of the money and let the legal filing deadline pass without filing a forfeiture complaint. Despite that, CBP refused to return Anthonia’s money unless she signed a “Hold Harmless Release Agreement” that would require her to waive her rights to hold CBP accountable.
“What happened to me should never happen to anyone,” said Anthonia Nwaorie. “My money was taken from me in 2017, and our appeal was made in 2020. I’m very disappointed that it took nearly 3 years to get an opinion that gets a key fact wrong and says I wasn’t harmed because I ultimately got my money back—even though I refused to sign the government’s agreement. The government kept my money for nearly 7 months and refused to return it until after I filed my lawsuit. This seriously disrupted my plans and caused major delays in opening the clinic.”
The class action lawsuit brought by IJ on behalf of Anthonia and others in her position seeks to stop CBP from unlawfully demanding that property owners sign a Hold Harmless Release Agreement before returning seized property that they are statutorily required to return under the federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA).
After waiting more than two and half years for the opinion, which was unsigned, IJ is asking the Appeals Court to rehear the case, given the incorrect factual and legal basis of the dismissal, and to ensure that the rights of all property owners subjected to CBP’s unconstitutional practices are protected. The outcome of this case could have significant implications for thousands of people who face similar situations each year. For more information about the case, please visit the Institute for Justice’s website.