There is a new lawsuit in Ohio – spearheaded by Institute for Justice – claiming Customs and Border Protection seized the life-savings of an immigrant family at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport without charging anyone with a crime. The suit says Rustem Kazazi was headed to Albania to do work on a home when he was accosted by CBP for the $58K in his carry-on. Via IJ:
While going through security, Rustem was detained by a group of CBP agents, who took him to a small room. The agents questioned Rustem in English—a language he only partially understands—and refused his requests for a translator. They stripped him naked and searched him from head to toe, but found nothing illegal. As if these indignities were not enough, the agents then took every penny of the Kazazis’ savings and gave Rustem a receipt for “U.S. Currency” that did not state the amount seized. Rustem was not arrested—he had not broken any law. The CBP agents simply took his money and sent him on his way.
There are plenty of pejoratives to describe this situation: baseless, authoritarian, police state, and un-American. The fact Rustem, who is an American citizen, had his money stolen by the government for the simple reason he had it in his carry-one is asinine. It’s a clear violation of the 4th Amendment because CBP seized the cash without bothering to make a reasonable effort to find an interpreter to establish whether probable cause existed. It’s a major failure on the government’s part, which shouldn’t be surprising because it’s government.
A little background on Rustem Kazazi. He’s a former Albanian police officer who immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 2005. IJ notes he became a citizen in 2010. Why was he carrying $58K on his person? The suit says Kazazi and his family didn’t want to deal with banking fees and figured it was easier to just have cash on hand. You or I might find it a little weird to carry that much money in a carry-on (or anywhere else) but it was his choice.
The suit itself has more details on the bureaucratic idiocy Kazazi and his family are going through. It doesn’t paint the government in a good light. Remember…Kazazi was never charged with a crime or arrested. Via the suit:
While Rustem was still away in Albania, CBP sent him a Notice of Seizure on December 1, 2017 claiming that the amount taken from him had been $57, 330 ($770 less than the amount the agents had seized in October). This document also announced, for the first time, that the agents had seized the money for being “involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.” The notice informed Rustem that CBP intended to seek civil forfeiture of his money using an internal administrative process. And it appraised Rustem of his right to submit a claim to the money and request, instead, that civil forfeiture proceedings be referred to federal court. However, this initial seizure noticed included conflicting deadlines for responding. With [his son]’s help, the family contacted CPB about the conflicting dates, which the agency eventually corrected by sending an amended seizure notice, which set Saturday, January 13, 2018 as the deadline for receiving claims and any demand for federal court action.
So far, the Kazazis are following the process by which people can dispute any civil asset forfeiture seizures. Here’s where things get more fun – if by more fun you mean completely stupid. Court documents say the family didn’t want to go through the administrative process because they wanted a judge to decide on the cash. CBP didn’t want to play ball (which makes sense because better to trust bureaucrats than judges) and the suit claims things went further downhill (emphasis mine).
[O]n March 30, a CBP attorney in Chicago called [Rustem’s son] and left a voicemail, saying she wanted to discuss, “whether you want [the case] to go to court or if we could handle this administratively.” The attorney urged [Rustem’s son] to call back quickly because the agency’s deadline to begin the court process would expire “within the next week”- that is, no later than April 6, 2018. Three weeks later, when still no forfeiture complaint had been filed, [Rustem’s son] wrote to his contact at CBP to ask why the family’s money had not been returned. The response was distressingly bureaucratic: CBP had no idea. For the first, CBP told the Kazazis that it had no control over the case; instead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was in control. When [the son] asked whom he could contract at the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, the agency claimed that it had no contact there and would not know who was handling the case until “a decision is made.”
Today, more than seven months since CBP agents unconstitutionally seized the Kazazis’ money and upended their lives, the government still has not begun civil forfeiture proceedings. It cannot do so now, as the deadline to seek forfeiture of the money expired no later than April 17. For the reasons explained below, the Court should order CBP to return the money.
This is why civil asset forfeiture has to be reformed on a federal level. I’ve written on the awfulness of civil asset forfeiture before and believe the Justice Department’s 2017 guidelines on the issue are obscene. I think it should be made illegal and the only asset forfeiture allowed is criminal asset forfeiture i.e. after a conviction.
Policing for profit needs to stop. Hopefully this case will force Congress to act on reform legislation.