ARLINGTON, Va.—Following a two-and-a-half-year legal battle, the $39,500 seized from small business owner Jerry Johnson at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport was finally returned to him this weekend. Jerry was never charged with a crime, but the state attempted to take his savings through civil forfeiture. After a trial court judge ruled Jerry did not even have standing to contest the forfeiture of his money, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm, intervened and successfully appealed Jerry’s case.
“Jerry’s case potently illustrates the injustice of civil forfeiture even when someone ultimately gets their property back,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “It took 31 months for Jerry to finally get his savings back even though he was never even charged with a crime. In the middle of the COVID pandemic, Jerry had to find a way to keep operating his small trucking business after its working capital was seized while also scraping together money to hire an attorney (before IJ took his case). We’re glad that the money has been returned, but Jerry still needs to be made whole.”
Jerry flew to Phoenix with the goal of purchasing a semi-truck for his Charlotte, North Carolina, trucking company in August 2020. At baggage claim, Jerry was questioned by police and his money was seized and subjected to civil forfeiture. An Arizona trial court ruled that he failed to prove the cash was his and, therefore, he could not contest the civil forfeiture of his money. IJ took over Jerry’s case on appeal and in May 2022 the Arizona Court of Appeals held that the lower court’s ruling violated Jerry’s right to due process and that his case needed to be more carefully considered.
“It’s a blessing to finally have my savings back so that I can invest it in my business,” said Jerry. “That the government could take my money, never charge me with a crime but hold onto my savings for so long is outrageous. It created a tremendous financial burden for me and my family, and there were a lot of business opportunities I’ve missed out on because that money was just sitting in a government account.”
The state returned Jerry’s money with less than 0.8% in accrued interest after moving to dismiss the case, but it refuses to pay his attorneys’ fees and interest at Arizona’s statutory rate for judgments. This would leave Jerry uncompensated for the years his money was locked away and for what he paid out-of-pocket to an attorney before IJ took on his case. The case will continue as IJ has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings and opposes the state’s motion.