Customs agents

Customs Agents Steal Money a Nurse Saved to Build a Medical Clinic in Nigeria

CBP won't return the cash unless the owner signs an illegal waiver.


Institute for Justice

Anthonia Nwaorie says she knew travelers entering the United States with more than $10,000 in cash are legally required to report that fact to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). But the Texas nurse, who was born in Nigeria and became a U.S. citizen in 1994, says she did not realize the same obligation applies to people leaving the United States. That mistake cost her $41,377, most of which was earmarked for a medical clinic she planned to build in her native country, during an aborted trip from Houston to Nigeria last October.

Because the Justice Department declined to pursue civil forfeiture of the money, CBP was required to return it. Yet the agency has refused to do so unless Nwaorie signs a waiver forgoing interest on the money, renouncing any legal claims in connection with the seizure, assuming responsibility for claims by third parties, and promising to reimburse the government for any expenses it incurs while enforcing the agreement.

That demand is illegal and unconstitutional, according to a federal class action lawsuit that the Institute for Justice filed last week on behalf of Nwaorie and other travelers who have found themselves in the same situation. The complaint "challenges CBP's systematic policy or practice of demanding that owners of seized property waive their constitutional and statutory rights, and accept new legal liabilities, as a condition of returning property that should be automatically returned."

Nwaorie, a 59-year-old grandmother who lives in Katy, a Houston suburb, has been flying to Nigeria once a year since 2014 to operate a free, week-long medical clinic in Imo State, where she grew up. She dreamed of opening a permanent clinic there and over several years saved about $30,000 to build one on land donated by her father. On the day she was stopped by CBP at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, she was carrying that money, plus another $3,000 or so to help relatives with medical bills and cover her travel and living expenses during the trip. She also had $7,400 that her brother was sending to relatives in Nigeria.

None of that was illegal, but failing to report the money was. The lawsuit argues that Nwaorie's ignorance of that requirement is understandable, given that it is not announced by airport signs or mentioned on the most commonly consulted CBP and TSA websites offering tips to travelers. Furthermore, complying with the requirement would have been logistically difficult, since Treasury Department regulations say travelers are supposed to file currency reports "at the time of departure" with "the Customs officer in charge," who in this case was located off airport property, about seven miles from the terminal where Nwaorie was scheduled to catch her flight.

"Willfully" failing to file the form is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Although Nwaorie was not charged with that crime or any other offense, CBP was authorized to seize the money as "property involved in a violation" of the reporting requirement. "It put me in a very difficult…financial state," Nwaorie says in an Institute for Justice video about the case. After CBP formally notified her of the seizure, Nwaorie exercised her right to challenge the forfeiture in federal court. But the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston turned down the case, at which point Nwaorie should have gotten her money back.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) is quite clear on that point, saying that if a forfeiture complaint is not filed within 90 days after the owner submits a claim, the government "shall promptly release the property" and "may not take any further action to effect the civil forfeiture of such property in connection with the underlying offense." In Nwaorie's case, the 90 days expired on March 12. Yet in a letter to Nwaorie on April 4, three weeks after the deadline had come and gone, Celia Grau, a CBP fines, penalties, and forfeitures officer, made it sound as if the agency was doing Nwaorie a favor by returning her money.

"Your case was referred to the United States Attorney's Office (USAO) for final determination; however the USAO has declined your case," Grau wrote. "Based on declination from the USAO, it is our decision to remit the currency seizure in full" (emphasis added). Under CAFRA, however, returning the money was not optional, so there was no "decision" for CBP to make.

Furthermore, CAFRA does not give CBP the authority to impose conditions on the return of seized property in these circumstances. Grau said Nwaorie had to sign the agency's "hold harmless agreement" if she wanted to get her money back. "Upon receipt of the Hold Harmless," Glau wrote, "we will initiate the procedures for remittance of the currency." She said Nwaorie could then expect to receive a check "within 8 to 10 weeks"—i.e., more than three months after the CBP was required to "promptly" return the money.

The language of the waiver CBP wanted Nwaorie to sign is sweeping, giving up any conceivable claim related to the seizure. That includes interest, legal fees, the cost of the ticket for the flight Nwaorie missed because she was detained by CBP, and the damage to her luggage, which CBP cut open even though she provided a key to the lock. The agreement would prevent her from challenging the CBP harassment she says she has encountered at airports since the seizure, which has included demeaning and destructive luggage searches. (The complaint says one CBP officer told Nwaorie the record of the seizure would "follow her wherever she goes.") The waiver would even bar Nwaorie from seeking records related to the case under the Freedom of Information Act.

"CBP's Hold Harmless Agreement," says the lawsuit, "requires Anthonia to surrender constitutional rights—including the right to petition, due-process rights, equal-protection rights, and property rights—in order to have her constitutional right to possess her property restored, even though CBP is automatically required to promptly return that same property, independent of this agreement, under CAFRA." The Institute for Justice argues that foisting this waiver on people like Nwaorie violates not only their statutory rights under CAFRA but also their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment, since it imposes "unconstitutional conditions" on the return of their property.

Seeking certification of a class action, the lawsuit notes that CBP "conducts at least 120,000 seizures of property" each year. "If the USAO declines to pursue judicial forfeiture or otherwise does not timely file a forfeiture complaint (and does not obtain an extension or a criminal indictment alleging the property is subject to forfeiture) in just 1%…of CBP seizures in a given year," the complaint says, "there would be at least 1,200 claimants per year for whom CBP is automatically required to return their property under CAFRA." The complaint cites David Smith, author of Prosecution and Defense of Forfeiture Cases, who "has encountered this CBP policy or practice before" and believes "CBP regularly demands that property owners sign hold harmless agreements even when CBP is required to promptly return the seized property."

Anya Bidwell, one of the Institute for Justice attorneys representing Nwaorie, says the case illustrates the inherent injustice of civil forfeiture. "Anthonia was never charged with a crime, and the government decided not to forfeit her money," Bidwell says in a press release. "But all these months later, she's still suffering from a seizure the government acknowledges should never have happened. Even when the civil forfeiture process supposedly 'works' as designed, it has disastrous effects on innocent people."

NEXT: Texas Town in Trouble for Spending Money Seized from Citizens on Trips, Non-Police Business

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The United States of America vs $41,377 because screw those sick people 10,000 miles away, we need to buy shinier badges and epaulettes for our uniforms, and you can’t prove it was for those sick people 10,000 miles away, maybe it was for drugs or something bad.

    1. THE MONEY SHOULDN’T HAVE TRIED TO FLEE THE COUNTRY. She’s just lucky Chuck Schumer doesn’t catch wind of this whole thing.

    2. There are entirely too many laws that were passed so the government could ‘get’ people they ‘knew’ were guilty of something. All of them are utter pigswill, and none mores than the Civil Forfeiture laws.

      1. Government Almighty does NOT like the idea that an individual or small group of humanoids would send money that “belongs” to the USA, to third-world, shit-hole nations, to DO GOOD!!! WITHOUT permission!!!

        “DOING GOOD” belongs to Emperor Trump, or others duly empowered by Government Almighty, magnanimously handing out the goodies, Santa-style, to OTHER Emperors, in foreign lands, to maybe, eventually, in trickles, dribs, and drabs, to “trickle down” to the mere mortals! In fractions of what was forcibly fleeced from taxpayers!!!

        Anthonia Nwaorie presents a challenge to the existing order, and so, must be PUNISHED!!! Severely!!!

        (Bring out the whips and chains… And next… The oral sex!!!!)

    3. My last month paycheck was for 11000 dollars… All i did was simple online work from comfort at home for 3-4 hours/day that I got from this agency I discovered over the internet and they paid me for it 95 bucks every hour…

      This is what I do….

  2. and promising to reimburse the government for any expenses it incurs while enforcing the agreement.

    Total cost of expenses: $41,734

    1. More likely, the expenses would dwarf the amount originally sized by at least an order of magnitude.

      1. You’re probably right,

  3. I wonder if there is any possible non-retarded reason for having to declare cash at the border.

    1. In case CBP wants it, holmes.

    2. If the cash flees the country, it’s harder for the government to get its hands on it. That’s it, pure and simple. If the money is not here in the US engaged in taxable enterprise, it’s the same as stealing from the government.

      1. Tony’s stated that all cash belongs to the Federal Reserve, so he does believe that removing money from the US is stealing from the government.

        When the shit hits the fan, I hope to watch him lined up against the wall before I am.

      2. It actually works to the government’s benefit. It allows the government to print as much money as it wants while lowering the inflationary affect caused by having too many dollars in circulation. Think of it as an off the books loan from the rest of the world.

        1. Yup, up until the US dollar ceases to be the leading reserve currency and medium of currency exchange. After that, we’re royally fucked.

    3. Preventing money laundering. Legal transactions tend to use banks which makes them traceable. Illegal transactions tend to avoid banks.

      1. So that’s a ‘no’ then.

      2. except for when banks get to help launder enough money then its okay

      3. The burden of proof is on the government, not the cash.

        1. BWAAAAAAahahahhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…..No. Check out the term “presumption of correctness”.

          The Presumption of Correctness is a legal doctrine…. that assumes the [state] is correct in how it levied its [charges] against you. That means the default position where any…appeal starts at is, you’re wrong. If the [state] had outdated information, improperly trained evaluators or just negligent or incompetent staff, unless you can prove otherwise, the [state] is presumed to be correct.

  4. “Treasury Department regulations say travelers are supposed to file currency reports “at the time of departure” with “the Customs officer in charge,” who in this case was located off airport property, about seven miles from the terminal where Nwaorie was scheduled to catch her flight.”

    Vogons have taken over the government.

    1. The Vogons would do a better job of running the government than the imbeciles we have now.

    2. The Customs officer in charge can be found in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door that reads “BEWARE OF LEOPARD.”

    3. Vogons are just an allegorical representation of British government bureaucracy.

    4. Oh, but their poetry!

    5. You get customs forms when arriving in a country. They don’t make you fill out anything when you leave. If it’s a felony not to file, the government should make it easier to file (signs and forms at the entrance to security, for example.)

      1. I have certainly left countries that had strict limits and requirements for declaration of local currency.

      2. It’s fairly obvious: the law for travelers is primarily promulgated off site/in the shadows and without advertising in order to seize cash and goodies from the ignorant. Can’t have air travelers know what’s going on… no sir. That busts up a good RICO operation.

  5. I was under the impression that they make the form available at customs and you can essentially fill it out and ‘file’ on the spot.

    The FinCEN 105 can be obtained prior to traveling or when going through CBP. If assistance is required, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer can help with filling out the form.

    Yes, the whole filing thing is dumb, but I’m not buying this idea that it has to be given to someone miles away from the point-of-exit/entry.

    1. You don’t go through US Customs when you leave. You go through Customs when you arrive in the US.

      1. It’s a Fed thing: only they are allowed to throw millions around the planet [as in 2008/9] to hide our real rate of inflation from US government statistics. If citizens do that too, then they might make a mistake cooking their books and can get certain people unelected by pricing errors caused by lopsided distribution – inflation or deflation actions can occur without a real change in total cash in circulation. Imbalanced markets do tend to correct themselves, even fiat currency.

  6. How about the only government entity able to seize cash should be a judge issuing a ruling from the bench after a trial with full constitutional protections? (If there are any constitutional protections left)

    How about no silly ass laws about how much cash an individual is ‘allowed’ to have?
    Oh, wait. I said individual, didn’t I?

    1. It’s perfectly acceptable for a law-enforcement office to hold the cash as evidence of a possible crime.

      The issue is that when the suspect was found innocent, the cash should have been returned without strings.

      1. How does holding the cash provide evidence that would help in prosecuting a criminal case as long as they can document the existence of the cash?
        As I understand it, the purpose of these currency control laws is to prevent money laundering and cash leaving the country for large drug deals.
        I suppose in libertopia there might still be need for money laundering laws in certain cases. But in the world we live in now, we need money laundering (and lots of drugs). A lot of the economy is underground, and a lot of that doesn’t victimize anyone. Effectively combating money laundering would do great damage to the economy.

      2. And “promptly”, which means, as soon as practicable. Which would typically be 1 to 3 business days, not 4 months later followed by an 8-10 week delay to process the check.

      3. Unless you have probable cause to believe that the cash included fingerprints, chemical tracers, dye packets or serial numbers relevant to an actual crime, I have trouble believing that mere cash can be “evidence”. Cash is fungible. An affidavit and photograph of the cash are all the evidence needed to prove or disprove the “crime” of transporting unreported cash.

        The justification for seizing and holding the cash has never been that “it’s evidence”. Police and prosecutors openly admit that the justification is to prevent the owner from spending it or otherwise moving it out of their reach.

      4. If law enforcement needs the cash as evidence, they should write a check of equal value to the individual whose cash was seized.

  7. Surely, it is known who the moral reprobates were who thought up and wrote that Hold Harmless document and drum them out of government service?

    1. A lack of moral probity is sort of a government service job requirement.

    2. I want them fired, but out of a cannon aimed at point-blank range at a brick wall.

  8. CBP was required to return it. Yet the agency has refused to do so unless Nwaorie signs a waiver … promising to reimburse the government for any expenses it incurs while enforcing the agreement.

    “You understand. Like court costs in traffic court.”

  9. Who travels anywhere in this world with that much cash is just plain stupid. that said since she was at the boarder no reason they couldn’t have the appropriate paper work there, but thats how governments makes innocent people criminals

    1. 40K is barely enough to buy a decent vehicle and live for a year. It’s not like she was carrying a fortune.

      1. For Nigeria… US metrics don’t work. Maybe a good paying job there is the equivalent of $4k a year? Does $10k buy a house? I don’t know, I’ve never been there. Half the world either walks to work or rides a [motor]bike.

        1. See here.

          The link is pre-filtered for Nigerian homes but if you change the drop-downs, you can get an amazing overview of what income means to the way people actually live. The Dollar Street project is a fascinating photo study.

          1. Weird. Once again, my attempt at creating a link has failed. I don’t know why. Does the Reason commenting system not like https?

            Ah… Apparently, the commenting system interprets the entire link as a “word” and has a filter for words greater than 50 characters. Try copy-pasting the link below and remove the blank spaces.


    2. Sort of stupid like people who dont punctuate or capitalize or even double space but thats how the world swings this week

      1. so writes the person who also doesn’t punctuate “don’t” you.

    3. Sometimes you need to use cash, though. I don’t know how it would work in Nigeria exactly, but something tells me using US cash gets things done a lot faster than trying to use banks or local currency. Of course it also exposes you to other dangers, but if you want to be safe and comfortable all the time, you probably don’t go and try to build hospitals in Nigeria.

    4. So what’s your proposed alternative? Transfer it to a bank in Nigeria? You don’t think it would get stolen there?

      1. I Have relatives that live in those countries and thats how its done. its better than being mugged by a street thug or the U.S.

  10. Why was she stopped by CPB in the first place? Are they in fact the ones who opened her suitcase, or was it TSA? Isn’t it U.S. policy that people may leave countries at will, so long as the country they are going to will admit them, and that only the country being entered has authority to question or search a traveler, not the one being left?

    1. since money has a metal tracking strip in it now I’m sure alarms went off somewhere.

    2. Her luggage was x-ray’d most likely, but the imbecile arrangement erected by Chertoff likely just uses warm bodies to run the machines and actual security decisions get made remotely for anything but a weapon. Assuming that’s correct, then airport TSA jobs don’t rate a dollar over minimum wage.

  11. Once again, IJ kicking the states ass.

  12. Every government thug involved with this crap should have their assets seized until they figure out how to follow the law.

    1. And then not returned until they jump through enough red tape to wrap around the planet at least three times.

    2. I agree with the sentiment, but unfortunately they are following “the law”.

  13. Has she opened a go fund me account? Some of us might want to help her out beyond just getting her money back…

    1. Bless you!!! Benevolence is good, goodness is benevolent…

  14. So she has to endure having her money stolen for a silly reporting offense enforced with Vogonlike methods (see above).

    If forfeiture from the innocent can be triggered so easily, then what about the thieves who stole the money under color of law? Shouldn’t there be a law requiring them to (a) pay back triple what they stole and (b) go to prison?

  15. “The lawsuit argues that Nwaorie’s ignorance of that requirement is understandable, given that it is not announced by airport signs or mentioned on the most commonly consulted CBP and TSA websites”

    These are features, not bugs.

  16. Government fucktards. But I repeat myself.

  17. “Willfully failing…” This notion should be discarded because willfully following the sum total of federal law is a physical impossibility. Lawmakers need lawyers who need lawyers nowadays. For anyone outside of government, have we entered automatic force majeure territory for anything masquerading as federal law? I think of the ACA and… congress didn’t read the bill, the president didn’t read the bill and neither did SCOTUS. Given that level of malfeasance, how many more statutes are on the books that may not be duly constituted? How would anyone know what was delivered to any sitting president was actually what was put before congress? For all we know, the Russians are delivering “legislation” around the capitol to cause the nation to stop functioning because you can’t leave your house without breaking the law each and every morning.

  18. The worst part of anything to do with international travel is the realization that the people in charge of our “security” is that they’re all mentally retarded. And we give them guns and a little bit of power.

  19. Found Interesting and wonderfull keep sharing
    Click me

  20. This is brought to you by the same government that wants to take your guns. Imagine the shit show we are gonna get if they disarm us.

  21. My Buddy’s mom makes $77 hourly on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her check was $18713 just working on the computer for a few hours. try this web-site


Please to post comments

Comments are closed.