Yesterday Gerardo Serrano was reunited with his 2014 Ford F-250 pickup truck, which was arrested by Customs and Border Protection officers two years ago in connection with international arms smuggling. The smuggling involved five handgun rounds that Serrano forgot to remove from the truck's center console before embarking on a trip to visit his cousin in Mexico. The truck was never formally charged with a crime, and neither was Serrano, as is typical in civil forfeiture cases. After the Institute for Justice filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Serrano and other similarly situated vehicle owners last month, I.J. says in a press release, CBP lawyers suddenly told him "he could pick up his truck whenever he wanted."
CBP's capitulation is yet another example of how standing up to asset-seizing bullies can pay off, especially if you have the Institute for Justice in your corner. But I.J. is not done with CBP. "The government cannot illegally seize and keep someone's property for two years, and then give it back and pretend like no harm was done," says I.J. attorney Robert Everett Johnson. "We will continue to fight to see that Gerardo is made whole, and to make sure this never happens again."
Serrano still has not been compensated for the costs imposed by the seizure of his truck. He continued to make monthly $672 car payments even though he could no longer use the truck, paid $700 a year to insure it and $1,000 to keep it registered in his home state of Kentucky, and spent thousands of dollars on rental cars. Then there is the matter of the $3,805 bond (10 percent of the truck's value) that he had to pay so he could challenge the seizure in court. Serrano never got his day in court, but the government still has his money. If I.J. had not represented him pro bono, Serrano probably also would have had to pay a lawyer thousands of dollars.
The I.J. lawsuit focuses on the lack of due process for property owners like Serrano, who lose the use of their vehicles for extended periods of time while their forfeiture cases stall. In Serrano's case, CBP never even got around to filing a forfeiture complaint. In the Western District of Texas, I.J. says, the average time between a CBP vehicle seizure and the filing of a forfeiture complant is 150 days.
"No judge would have approved the seizure of Gerardo's truck," says I.J. attorney Anya Bidwell. "And that's precisely why Customs and Border Protection is giving it back. We're just saying the agency should have to explain themselves to a judge promptly after it first takes the property."
Serrano is happy about the semi-victory but wants to see more evidence that CBP has seen the error of its car-stealing ways. "I'm thrilled to have my truck back," Serrano says. "But I'd like somebody to apologize for taking it in the first place."