Law & the Courts

Lawsuit: Border Patrol Seized 64-Year-Old Immigrant’s Life Savings without Cause

A Border Patrol agent patrols along the current border fence in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, April 9, 2018. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized a 64-year-old Albanian immigrants’ life savings at an airport in October and never charged him with a crime, according to a federal lawsuit the man filed against the agency in Ohio this week.

Rustem Kazazi, a recently retired police officer who lives in the Cleveland suburbs with his family, was traveling back to Albania to fix up a family home, and potentially purchase his own vacation home, when customs agents at the Cleveland airport inexplicably seized $58,000 in cash from him. Kazazi claims he was traveling with cash because the American dollar has greater purchasing power than Albanian currency, which he says is generally considered less desirable in Albania and presents security issues when withdrawn from the country’s banks.

CPB seized the money through a process known as civil asset forfeiture, which empowers the government to take an individual’s assets without charging them with a crime, and which is so widely practiced that it netted the federal government $2 billion in 2017.

“You have the right to travel with cash in America, even when you’re flying internationally,” Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the Kazazis in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “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.”

Under federal law, the authorities must initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding within 90 days after Kazazi’s response to their forfeiture notice to prove that the assets were associated with criminal activity. But that deadline passed on April 17 and no hearing has occurred. Instead, Kazazi’s only contact with CPB came in the form of the notice itself, which states “that enforcement activity indicates that the currency was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation,” without citing any corroborating evidence.

In a statement provided to the Washington Post, a CPB spokesman said that, “Pursuant to an administrative search of Mr. Kazazi and his bags, TSA agents discovered artfully concealed U.S. currency. Mr. Kazazi provided inconsistent statements regarding the currency, had no verifiable source of income, and possessed evidence of structuring activity.” (“Structuring activity” refers to the practice of making separate $10,000 ATM withdrawals to avoid reporting requirements.)

Hottot told the Post that CPB never mentioned any evidence of “structuring” prior to its most recent statement and denied that his client made any effort to conceal the cash while traveling. “I think what were really seeing here is some creative Monday-morning quarterbacking by CBP, trying to justify the unjustified,” he said.

The case comes amid an ongoing debate over the efficacy and constitutionality of civil forfeiture, which pits civil libertarians against proponents of the practice, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who believe that it is an invaluable law-enforcement tool.

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