Customs and Border Protections (CBP) seized $41,000 from a Nigerian-born Texas woman in October of last year as she was passing through the Houston airport on her way to start a medical clinic in her home country.
Anthonia Nwaorie, a 59-year-old nurse, was never charged with a crime and CBP never pursued civil-forfeiture proceedings against her. But the agency is nevertheless refusing to return the funds, which Nwaorie spent years saving up, unless she signs a a so-called “hold harmless agreement” forfeiting her right to sue and forcing her to reimburse the government for “costs incurred in the enforcement of any part of this agreement,” according to a report in the Texas Tribune.
Nwaorie was detained before boarding her flight after CBP officers discovered that she had failed to report carrying more than $10,000 in violation of federal law.
“The officer started asking me questions: How much money do you have? How long have you been in the United States?” Nwaorie told the Tribune. “I felt like a criminal that had just run the red light.”
The Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public-interest-law firm, filed a class-action suit last Thursday on Nwaorie’s behalf, challenging the government’s authority to require that a citizen sign away their right to sue before their money is returned.
“We’re representing hundreds or thousands of people all over the country who have had this sort of thing happen to them,” Dan Alban, one of the attorneys litigating the case, told the Tribune. “They were entitled to get their property back…and instead, CBP sent them this letter demanding that they waive all rights to sue and hold [the government] harmless, and if they violate the agreement, pay all the attorney’s fees. And that’s just egregious.”
The pending litigation comes amid a growing national debate about civil asset forfeiture, which law-enforcement officials continue to claim is vital to combating organized crime, even as critics across the political spectrum have increasingly come to regard it as unconstitutional government overreach.
Many people who have their property seized never get their day in court, as the authorities are entitled to keep what is confiscated under a process known as “administrative forfeiture.” So long as the government is not challenged in court — a rare occurrence considering the socioeconomic status of many subjected to the policy, according to IJ attorneys — they can retain the seized property indefinitely without ever charging the property’s rightful owner with a crime.
Nwaorie says her plans to open a medical clinic in Nigeria have been suspended pending the conclusion of her legal battle.
“This is a horrible nightmare which I would not wish on anybody at all,” she said. “This is the money that I have worked hard to earn. I have the right to do whatever I please with it. So for someone to stop me and treat me like a common criminal for my money that I have paid taxes on already…it’s not right.”