NEW ORLEANS—Kermit Warren, a New Orleans grandfather and head deacon of his Lower Ninth Ward church, will get his life savings back after the federal government agreed to dismiss its civil forfeiture case with prejudice, effectively clearing Kermit’s name. In November 2020, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents seized Kermit’s money at the Columbus, Ohio, airport. Kermit was traveling home after inspecting a tow truck he considered buying for his scrapping business. In August, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit, public interest law firm that protects property rights nationwide, announced that it would defend Kermit’s life savings from the federal government’s predatory civil forfeiture practices.
“I’m relieved that I will finally get my hard-earned savings back after a year of suffering,” said Kermit. “But what happened to me was wrong. The officers and prosecutors treated me like a criminal when all I was trying to do was improve my business and my life. For a year, they’ve left me struggling to survive a pandemic and a hurricane without my savings. I did nothing wrong, but until the law is changed so that everyone is protected, I am not going to have cash in my house anymore.”
After DEA seized Kermit’s cash, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit to keep the money. Kermit was never arrested or charged with any crime. Instead, the government’s complaint was based on vague innuendo and baseless accusations that the money was connected to drugs. After IJ agreed to represent Kermit and documented the legitimate purpose for his trip and the legal sources of his money, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case “with prejudice.” This means that the government effectively admits that Kermit did nothing wrong and cannot re-file a forfeiture complaint in the future.
“We’re relieved that Kermit is getting his hard-earned money back, but it’s outrageous that he was left destitute for an entire year for no good reason due to the callous, profit-driven actions of DEA and federal prosecutors,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “Kermit’s case highlights how the federal government abuses civil forfeiture. It seizes cash on the flimsiest of pretexts—traveling with cash at an airport—and effectively forces people to prove their own innocence to get their money back. And even in a best-case scenario, it can take over a year for them to get their property back.”
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 their money without probable cause. While not a named plaintiff in that suit, Kermit is a member of the class and yet another example of how these practices harm innocent people.
“TSA’s and DEA’s unconstitutional ‘see cash, seize cash’ practices must end to prevent further abuses like Kermit’s,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Although Kermit will get his money back after a year of struggle, this will keep happening to other flyers until the agencies are forced to end their unconstitutional practices.”
Kevin Foley of Reminger Co. LPA, Columbus, Ohio, served as local counsel in this case.