NEW ORLEANS—Kermit Warren is a hard worker, a grandfather and the head deacon of his church in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Over the years, he diligently set aside cash from his jobs, saving nearly $30,000. But now, his money is in the hands of the federal government, which is trying to take all of it, even though he has not been charged with any crime. To reclaim his life savings, Kermit has teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit, public interest law firm that protects property rights nationwide.
Like many others, Kermit lost his job at the historic Roosevelt Hotel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So he decided to turn his part-time scrapping business into a full-time job. But on a trip to Ohio to purchase a tow truck for the business, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents took his life savings. Months later, the federal government filed a civil forfeiture case with flimsy allegations that the money is somehow connected to the drug trade. Kermit’s case demonstrates the abusiveness of civil forfeiture, which requires property owners to effectively prove their own innocence in court.
“Traveling with cash is not a crime, but DEA and TSA continue to treat innocent travelers like criminals and take their hard-earned money using civil forfeiture,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “These abuses disproportionately harm those of modest means and people of color. Like Kermit, many victims are blue-collar workers who are traveling to buy used vehicles or other equipment for their business from people they’ve never met; they have to pay cash to close the deal.”
Kermit has worked many jobs over his career. He worked as a longshoreman at the port of New Orleans. He was a contractor with the Army Corps of Engineers, helping to clean up the city following Hurricane Katrina. He worked at the popular Central Grocery, helping to make their world-famous muffuletta sandwiches. But with the pandemic making travel all but impossible, he was laid off from his job shining shoes at the Roosevelt. During all this time, he collected and hauled scrap metal to supplement his income.
When his son Leo was laid off from his job at another hotel, the two decided to make Kermit’s part-time scrapping business their full-time jobs. But to do that, they needed a tow truck. They thought they found the right truck outside Columbus, Ohio. After negotiating a cash price, the two purchased one-way tickets, hoping to drive the truck back to New Orleans. But when they got to Ohio and finally saw the truck, they realized it was too large for their needs. They went to the airport and bought one-way tickets back home to New Orleans.
Going through airport security screening, Kermit was asked about his cash by TSA screeners, but was allowed to continue to his gate. Later, while Kermit and Leo waited for their flight, they were approached by three DEA agents and interrogated about Kermit’s money. Desperate not to lose his life savings, Kermit panicked and made a mistake that he regrets: He told the agents that he was a retired New Orleans police officer and showed them a badge his older son, Kermit Jr., had given him after he left the force. Kermit quickly admitted the truth about the badge, and the agents seized all of hislife savings. But they had no basis to believe that Kermit’s cash was connected to any criminal activity.
Kermit and Leo were allowed to board their flight, and were not charged with any crime, but months later the government filed a civil forfeiture complaint seeking to keep Kermit’s money based on vague and baseless accusations that it is connected to drugs.
“The government shouldn’t be able to take every dollar I’ve saved up when I’ve committed no crime,” said Kermit. “Since they seized my money it has been very difficult for me to provide for my family and pay my bills. The way the government has treated me made me feel like dirt. I hope not only to get my money back, but to stop this nightmare from happening to anyone else.”
Kermit finds himself trapped in the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, where the government brings charges against property instead of people. The federal government does not have to convict or even charge people with a crime in order to permanently keep their property. Property owners are not entitled to legal representation, and the standard of proof needed for the government to keep the property is far lower than in a criminal case.
Flying domestically with any amount of cash is completely legal, but law enforcement routinely seizes large amounts of cash at airports. IJ is currently litigating a class action against DEA and TSA over their practices of stopping people who are traveling with large amounts of cash and seizing the money without probable cause.
“DEA’s practice of ‘see money, seize money’ counts on people’s inability to navigate the maze of civil forfeiture proceedings in order to get their property back,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “The government shouldn’t be able to keep a person’s life savings without a related criminal conviction. But people like Kermit are essentially forced to prove their innocence just to keep what they worked so hard to earn. And law enforcement agencies use that money to pad their own policing budgets. This abuse needs to end.”