U.S. Government Seizes Life Savings from Ohio Family, Triggers Lawsuit Challenging Civil Forfeiture

Institute for Justice · May 31, 2018

CLEVELAND—An immigrant family working hard and sacrificing for thirteen years to help relatives and to buy a dream vacation home in their native country is something that should be celebrated. But for Rustem Kazazi, it led to a terrifying run-in with hostile agents of the U.S. government. And once again, an American family finds itself in a civil forfeiture battle with law enforcement over whether people have the right to travel with cash.

This version of an increasingly familiar nightmare began when Rustem, a 64-year-old former police officer from Albania who now lives in suburban Cleveland, was traveling back to Albania to fix up a family home and potentially buy a home on the coast.  He and his wife, Lejla, have long dreamed of a vacation home for all their family to visit and enjoy once they retire. Rustem also has extended family in Albania who are struggling financially, and he wanted to help them.

At the airport in Cleveland, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) promptly whisked him into a small interrogation room, stripped him naked for a full-body search, interrogated him without a translator, and then seized his family’s life savings without charging anyone with a crime. So now Rustem and his family are teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to fight back.

Rustem, Lejla, and the couple’s son, Erald, and daughter immigrated to the United States in 2005 and became American citizens in 2010. They worked hard to save up $58,100 for Rustem’s trip. He packed the family’s savings in three envelopes in his carry-on luggage and passed through security at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, heading to a layover at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, before ultimately flying to Albania. But CBP agents stopped him in Cleveland and took the family’s entire life savings.

“You have the right to travel with cash in America, even when you’re flying internationally,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with IJ, which represents the Kazazis in the lawsuit. “But again, we’re encountering a situation where law enforcement sees somebody with legal cash, assumes they must have done something criminal, and they just take the money. It is disturbing how little respect federal agents show for the civil rights of American citizens.”

Because the Kazazis did nothing wrong, the government had to make something up. That is why, more than a month after the seizure, CBP tried to justify its actions by sending the Kazazis an outrageous letter claiming their money was “involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.” None of this is true—the Kazazis saved up their money from jobs they held lawfully in America, and they have 13 years of tax documents and bank statements to prove it. Moreover, the government has never pointed to any evidence of wrongdoing. Rustem decided to carry the money in cash because American dollars are highly valued in Albania and offer more purchasing power than the local currency.

Also troublingly, CBP’s letter claimed that agents seized $57,330 from Rustem—$770 less than he was actually carrying. So not only did federal agents take a family’s life savings without due process, but they did not even bother to count or report it properly, as required by law.

CBP never bothered to file a formal forfeiture complaint against the Kazazis’ life savings, and federal law required the agency to return the Kazazis’ money or initiate legal proceedings no later than April 17, 2018. But rather than honor its legal obligations, CBP continues to hold the Kazazis’ money more than seven months after the seizure without any explanation.

“The government harassed my father, stole my family’s money and is now apparently hoping we’ll just forget about it,” said Erald Kazazi. “We’re American citizens, and we came to this country because we believe America is the land of freedom and opportunity. We never imagined the government would treat its own citizens this way.”

The Kazazis’ case marks the third active IJ legal challenge against CBP. Earlier this month, IJ attorneys filed a class action lawsuit in Texas against the agency on behalf of a Houston-area nurse, Anthonia Nwaorie, who was traveling to Nigeria to build a medical clinic for vulnerable women and children. After CBP missed its filing deadline in that case, the agency initially demanded Anthonia sign away her civil rights in order to get her money back. CBP suddenly reversed course and returned Anthonia’s money without requiring her to sign away her rights after IJ’s lawsuit garnered an avalanche of negative publicity, but the lawsuit remains ongoing.

Last fall, IJ filed a different federal class action lawsuit in Texas against CBP’s use of civil forfeiture after the agency seized a truck from Kentucky farmer Gerardo Serrano and held it for two years without charging him with a crime. The agency returned Gerardo’s truck after IJ filed the lawsuit, but that case also remains ongoing. The plaintiffs in all three cases are trying to ensure nobody else falls victim to the nightmares they have experienced with civil forfeiture.

“This family’s case, like so many others, shows why civil forfeiture must end,” explained IJ attorney Johanna Talcott. “The Kazazis did nothing wrong and were never charged with a crime, but the government still won’t return their money all these months later. This kind of abuse is far too common because civil forfeiture is an inherently abusive process that will always have disastrous effects on innocent people. Enough is enough.”