The government confiscated $41,000 on the jetway from a 59 year old nurse departing Houston back in October. She was never charged with a crime.
The woman, a US citizen living in the Houston suburb of Katy, had taken her savings with her to start a medical clinic in Nigeria. She was bringing medical equipemnt and supplies on the flight along with the cash. Customs and Border Protection stopped her during boarding.
“The officer started asking me questions: How much money do you have? How long have you been in the United States?” she remembered. “I felt like a criminal that had just run the red light.”
Nwaorie said she was detained for hours. She missed her flight to Nigeria and the customs officers seized all her money.
She knew she had to declare when she was bringing more than $10,000 cash into the country. But she didn’t know — and most people don’t know — that you have to declare when taking more than $10,000 cash out of the country.
It’s not illegal to carry more than $10,000 cash out of the country. However you have to file FinCEN Form 105 with the Customs and Border Protection office at the airport on your way out of the country. And by the way the $10,000 threshold applies to parties traveling together, so two people carrying over $5000 cash each would still have to file.
If the government wants to keep the money they file a civil suit against the money rather than the person (since money doesn’t have rights).
If someone does decide to fight..CBP has to ask federal prosecutors to initiate civil forfeiture proceedings against the property — which results in comical court case names like “United States vs. Ten Thousand Seven Hundred Dollars” or “United States vs. 2005 Cadillac Escalade.”
The government not only hasn’t charged this woman with a crime, they haven’t sought a court order to seize her property. But they won’t return the cash unless she signs away her rights promising not to sue and let the government keep some of the money to cover their “costs incurred.”
Customs and Border Protection “conducted at least 125,583 seizures across the country in 2016” including 278 at Houston’s international airport. Dan Alban at the Institute for Justice, whom I’ve known since the late 90s, has filed a class action suit demanding the government return this woman’s money and seeking to void agreements people were forced to sign absolving the government of wrongdoing as a condition of returning their money.
“We’re representing hundreds or thousands of people all over the country who have had this sort of thing happen to them,” said Dan Alban, one of the attorneys litigating the case. “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.”
Two years ago I wrote about a man who had his life savings confiscated because his luggage smelled of pot. It was one of over 90 such seizures in a year at the Cincinnati airport alone. I became an expert witness in the case but it didn’t go to trial, the government backed off and returned the man’s money.
Around the same time I covered a man who had $44,000 seized at New York JFK even though he was never charged with a crime. He couldn’t get his money back because it took him 90 days to get assistance jumping through all of the required hoops to file a petition for the funds to be returned — and the government only gives you 35 days to file in federal court.
More on civil asset forfeiture, from Last Week Tonight: