Civil Asset Forfeiture

American Brazenly Robbed of $58,100 Life Savings by Federal Agents at Cleveland Airport

Rustem Kazazi was victimized by desperadoes from a gang called "Customs and Border Patrol," but thanks to the Institute for Justice he's fighting back.


Rustem Kazazi, an American citizen, was just trying to get on a plane to return to his native Albania last October, from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. He was initially flying to Newark where he'd catch a connection to Albania.

Kazazi Family, via Institute for Justice

He hoped while in Albania for a few months to do some repair work on a home he still owned there, and possibly to look for another home for his family in his old age. Given facts about the Albanian banking and finance system and the advantages of cash there, he chose to turn his life savings into U.S. dollars and bring them with him to cover expenses related to the above house needs and his long stay rather than deal with bank transfers or anything of the sort.

At an American airport, he was the victim of desperadoes who took everything he had.

Kazazi ran his carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine, like we all must. In that luggage was his life savings in cash, $58,100. There was zero attempt to be clandestine or smuggle-y about it. It was divided into three labeled and marked stacks of $100 bills, all in one envelope with $58,100 written on the outside.

TSA agents noticed the money. Hard not to, I guess. They called Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on Kazazi, who took him off to a private room to grill him, as well as strip him naked for a search for, what? money he did not label openly in his carry-on luggage?

While his English is poor and he couldn't quite understand the agents, they refused him either an interpreter or to summon family for help.

They kept his money, without telling him why, then tried to get him to just get on his flight without it. The receipt they handed him made no reference to the specific amount they'd confiscated. When he refused initially to just go on with his day as if he hadn't just suffered a horrible crime, they escorted him out of the airport. He contacted his wife in shock and she assured him it must all be some mistake and encouraged him to go forward with his travel plans.

In December CBP finally formally informed him via a "Notice of Seizure" that they'd taken $57,330 from him, $770 less than he insists was actually taken. The Kazazis filed all the officially required forms and notices to proceed with trying to get their money back before the legal deadline (after some complications involving confusing deadlines provided by CBP, and including the $770 the CBP seemed to deny it had even stolen). CBP agents tried to finagle the Kazazis into withdrawing their demand for federal court action, but failed.

Kazazi and his family today filed a formal motion for return of property under Rule 41(G) against U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and some of its authorities and agents hoping to get his stolen life savings back. The motion was filed with the assistance of consistent civil-forfeiture-justice fighters from the Institute for Justice, and the preceding details were gleaned from it.

The money is hard-earned. Kazazi, now 64 years old, and his family had the (at the time apparent) good fortune to win a visa to enter the U.S. from the State Department in 2005, and has been a citizen since 2010. His wife Lejla has lately been teaching English to immigrants, while Kazazi has worked a series of jobs including busboy, custodian, and parking lot attendant. (He'd been a police officer in Albania himself.)

Customs has chosen to assert that Kazazi's money is criminal for a grab bag of reasons that don't necessarily go together and for which they have no proof: "involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation" or you know, something bad that means they can steal it.

Was Mr. Kazazi guilty of smuggling, drug trafficking, or money laundering? Money can't commit a crime by itself, one might think, but requires a human accomplice. Lacking any evidence whatever for any such crime on Kazazi's part, he's accused or convicted of none of them. Thanks to the sinister legal magic of "civil asset forfeiture," the feds can just steal the money without proving any crime at all on the owners part.

Except even that evil power, which shouldn't exist at all, has its procedural limits thanks to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, as Kazazi's lawyers argue. According to that law, Customs in order to keep the stolen loot must officially initiate either civil forfeiture or criminal proceedings within 90 days of the complainant demanding an official federal court procedure regarding the property. That deadline, the motion says, expired back in April, but CBP haven't returned the money. The feds should have no legal recourse but to do that, promptly. But they haven't, hence the motion filed today.

The Washington Post reported on Kazazi's plight today, and received a statement from CBP asserting

"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," that is, making cash withdrawals of less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.

[Wesley] Hottot [one of Kazazi's lawyers] denies that Rustem Kazazi was trying to conceal the cash — he had wrapped it in paper, labeled it and sent it through the scanner in his carry-on bag. The "inconsistent statements" were a result of Kazazi's poor English language comprehension, Hottot said.

Hottot also noted that the structuring allegation was not included in the seizure notice. "They've never mentioned structuring before," he said. "I think what were really seeing here is some creative Monday-morning quarterbacking by CBP, trying to justify the unjustified."

As IJ noted in a press release on Kazazi's plight, despite the government's invented and contradictory claims of criminality:

the Kazazis saved up their money from jobs they held lawfully in America, and they have 13 years of tax documents and bank statements to prove it. Moreover, the government has never pointed to any evidence of wrongdoing.

"This family's case, like so many others, shows why civil forfeiture must end," explained IJ attorney Johanna Talcott. "The Kazazis did nothing wrong and were never charged with a crime, but the government still won't return their money all these months later. This kind of abuse is far too common because civil forfeiture is an inherently abusive process that will always have disastrous effects on innocent people. Enough is enough."

CBP also nattered about laws requiring international travelers with sums greater than $10,000 to report them. Kazazi, his lawyers told the Post, knew about those laws and intended to file his legally required forms prior to getting on the Newark flight in which he actually would be leaving the U.S.

He never got the chance. Let's hope the courts do the right, and legal, thing, demand CBP obey the law and return the stolen money, and give Kazazi a chance to obey the laws regarding disclosure of funds leaving the country by letting him leave the country with his funds.

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  1. In December CPB finally formally informed him via a “Notice of Seizure” that they’d taken $57,330 from him, $770 less than he insists was actually taken.

    That was the paperwork tax. Do you have any idea how many forms LEO has to deal with in any given interaction with their subjects?

    1. Or for drinks at the titty bar later that night after their score.

  2. I’m starting to think the Institute for Justice must not actually exist. Like that “safe place out west” in every zombie apocalypse movie that the heroes are trying to get to. Just a legend that the innocent whisper to each other, huddled around their trash fires amidst the ruins of civilization.

    1. Nice story-telling, Wanderer. I believe the place to which you’re referring is called “Galt’s Gulch.” I was there once upon a time, long, long ago. It’s at the end of The Lost Highway.

      1. I suppose they were technically trying to escape a sort of zombie apocalypse in that story, so sure.

    2. I got this from the Institute for Justice website.

      “The litigation team consists of Institute for Justice attorneys Wesley Hottot and Johanna Talcott. Patrick Lewis of BakerHostetler in Cleveland, Ohio, serves as local counsel.

      The Houston class action lawsuit is being litigated by IJ Attorneys Dan Alban and Anya Bidwell, who litigate civil forfeiture and other property rights cases nationwide.”

      So it looks like IFJ retained a local counsel and are representing him. This individual could never afford these attorneys if he were on his own.

      I have taken an interest in Institute for Justice and they are now on my list. Donations are tax deductible which is nice.

      1. The moment I have enough money to be in a position to donate to stuff, they’ll be top of my list too.

        1. what happened? You were going to make the donation in person and the cops took all the money?

          1. In fairness, I am the kind of… “businessman” they’re supposed to be targeting.

    3. In the case of a zombie apocalypse, just go north and wait for,it to freeze. Zombies have no body heat and will freeze into statues.

      1. Oh, no, don’t do that. Don’t bring realism into the zombie discussion. You start off with a “they’ll just freeze to death” here or a “they’ll rot away within a few months” there, and before you know it people are throwing around things like “catastrophic cell decay” and “inefficient transmission vectors” and all the fun is sucked out of it.

        1. The fun got sucked out of it when the world started taking it literally and not as a metaphor.

          1. Decapitating metaphors with a weedwhacker isn’t nearly as much fun.

  3. …the Kazazis saved up their money from jobs they held lawfully in America, and they have 13 years of tax documents and bank statements to prove it.

    The real American dream is to work your way up the food chain to where you can extralegally take property from people in plain view of everyone and with zero accountability.

    1. It worked for all other life forms over the last 4 billion years, who are we to judge?

    2. This dude probably got boned because he was a foreigner who spoke poor English.

      1. I don’t think they discriminate.

      2. No, but, that just made it much easier!!!

  4. Mr. Kazazi provided inconsistent statements regarding the currency, had no verifiable source of income and possessed evidence of structuring activity

    Ah, I see they’re using the little-known “subponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.

    1. “He don’t talk like us.
      He got more cash on him than any of us will ever carry.
      Albania was a commie country and we all know the commies been replaced by criminals.”

      There aren’t enough wood chippers.

      1. Not enough woodchippers, you say?

        Hey, didn’t this happen at an airport?

        Probably lots of jet turbines just lying around going to waste…

        1. Jet turbines make terrible wood chippers. Hell they get clogged up and stop working with just a few birds being chipped, just ask Capt Sully. 😉

          1. Alright, feeding them into escalators it is.

    2. Come on, you could see the desire to structure the deposits of his money in his eyes!

      1. We’ve come a looong way since Breed’s Hill.

  5. I thought it was *deposits* of $10K which needed reporting.

    1. Withdrawing your own money is now considered equally suspicious

    2. And not knowing you’re about to make one is no excuse.

    3. The law requires you to claim cash amounts over $9,999 entering or leaving the USA.

      Seizing $58,100 cash (property) for public use, requires the government to provide just compensation of $58,100.

      This would end police seizure of cash when they just have to pay you that cash right back.

  6. desperadoes from a gang called “Customs and Border Patrol,”

    They look innocent enough, but they’re all inked up under their body armor.

  7. desperadoes from a gang called “Customs and Border Patrol,”

    I always had the feeling the whole “build the wall” thing is just part of a turf war between 2 rival gangs.

    1. Building a wall is, after all, a legitimate exercise of Constitutionally apportioned legal authority. One can (and Reason does, often) that it is a MISTAKEN exercise of legal authority, but that’s a different question.

      OTOH, ‘Asset Forfeiture’ is a grotesque miscarriage of justice, even when the person it’s used on IS engaged in criminal activity. It is entirely based on the ‘We KNOW these are Bad Men, we just need to keep changing the Law until we can ‘get’ them” mentality, and low and behold when that impulse is surrendered to the next thing you know a lot of innocent people are caught in the toils.

      This nonsense predates Trump. It was done frequently during Prohibition, and after a quiet period was re-started for the ‘War On Drugs’ (another excellent reason to ashcan the whole thing) in 1980.

      So; Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama as Presidents all get a share of the blame, as do each and every Congresscritter serving in that period. Trump could stop it, I suppose. I’d like to think he will. But it has no real connection to the impulse to build a wall.

      1. You think the Donald eminent domain is for providing my propertties with parking lots at low, low prices! Trump will support civil forfeiture reform? Wanna buy a pink house, cheap?

      2. It’s easier to take the money from noncriminals, they don’t shoot back.

  8. I say get rid of the entire airport “security” bullshit, arm the airline pilots, and let all take their chances. The whole scene at the airports is bizarre.

    1. You have fun with that.

    2. Ha! I’m sure all of these would be Kings would happily go ask for their crowns back and the tyrants will gladly give them back.

    3. It would be easy for airports to refuse TSA and go back to their prior security arrangements that have been proven to work better.

    4. Just allow open carry in airplanes. So many good guys with guns that nothing will ever happen to anyone again!

  9. So these robbers not only violated the Constitution, they violated a specific statute aimed at curbing their excesses.

    They should be treated as if they’d put on ski masks and committed an armed holdup of a liquor store.

  10. The House of Representatives could make itself useful and file impeachment charges against some of the low-level officials involved in cases like this. Hold up a few of them as examples – impeach them, convict them in the Senate, and then forbid them from holding federal office in the future.

    What else can get their attention?

    1. It’ll never happen. They know the law. They might not get to keep the money due to the public viralness of the incident, but this won’t be their last attempt at it, hoping to hit more complacent people so they can shred the paperwork later and stick it in their pocket.

  11. Government employees taking an old man and his wife’s life savings, aren’t protecting their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Instead, they’re putting them in the poor house to get the money, and harming them.

    That’s government. It’s never a good force, because it starts with the evil of taking people’s money to employ government agents. Then if they harm people who’ve harmed no one else, government is no longer legitimate. Instead it’s become groups using government to steal; in this case a group of government employees steeling.

  12. all in one envelope with $58,100 written on the outside.

    “Artful concealment” indeed, since CBP claims they seized $57,330.

    1. It was obviously a masterful plot to deceive the government by having his money seized and then demand $770 more than they actually seized!

  13. Jesus what kind of scum work at the CBP?

    1. CBP– stealing the money that foreigners can’t be bothered to steal…

  14. Former Albanian police officer? So he probably got a taste of his own medicine… I kid, I kid…

  15. Love this country. Hate our government!

  16. Border agents are as bad as drug warriors — immoral authoritarians and lousy people who should be shunned by decent people and compelled to try to find an honorable livelihood.

    If your child is a border agent or drug warrior you should beg for forgiveness for your failure as a parent.

    1. I’ve met a few. They’re not very pleasant people. How big of an asshole do you have to be to not even lighten up when you’re drinking?

    2. If only you could see how this extends to other agents of the government.

      1. I’m neither disaffected nor unaccomplished enough to hate the entirety of the Government of the United States of America.

        1. I have no idea how the first part of your sentence is connected with the second part.

    3. You can be sure they kept all the records on paper so they could shred them later and take the money for themselves. Clearly they can’t now that it’s out in newspapers, so they’ll probably get the money back now. Lucky guy, considering how much he could have lost. Dumbass should learn how to use the banking system.

    4. You can be sure they kept all the records on paper so they could shred them later and take the money for themselves. Clearly they can’t now that it’s out in newspapers, so they’ll probably get the money back now. Lucky guy, considering how much he could have lost. Dumbass should learn how to use the banking system.

  17. “He never got the chance. Let’s hope the courts do the right, and legal, thing, demand CBP obey the law and return the stolen money, and give Kazazi a chance to obey the laws regarding disclosure of funds leaving the country by letting him leave the country with his funds.”

    This was the funniest part for me. Poor dude, got boned. Hope he gets his back, this is a terrible way to treat someone.

  18. Just another in a long line of ‘we need a law to tell the cops and courts what the constitution says’ articles.

    1. The cops and the courts know what the constitution says, and they don’t care. It’s malice, not ignorance driving their behavior.

      1. ” . . . the Russians, General, don’t forget the Russians . . . . “

  19. In our government’s bizarro world, cash issued by the government is now illegal.

  20. More nutpunches.

  21. Civil forfeiture bad. Albanians also bad. I think we need more info.

  22. …so that gov’t of the gov’t, by the gov’t, for the gov’t shall not perish…

  23. I can almost feel the flames already, but… Won the visa lottery in 2005. “Worked a series of jobs as busboy, custodian, and parking lot attendant.” That sounds like code for “was mostly unemployed.” So our visa lottery brought people with no marketable skills to the U.S. How many of the last 13 years do you suppose they were part of our welfare system? Thirteen years and still doesn’t speak English.

    1. If he “was mostly unemployed”, he wouldn’t have saved up $58,100. Being able-bodied and actually wanting to work is still a marketable skill, which many native-born Americans lack. Do you have any evidence that they were ever drawing welfare? (If they were, several things are wrong: First, why in heck would we give welfare to immigrants at all? And second, if they drew welfare while he was building up that wad of cash and working, it’s much too easy to defraud the system.)

      As for 13 years and still doesn’t speak English, some people pick up foreign languages fairly easily, but for some it’s quite a struggle. It appears that he’s never had time or money to take classes, and that he speaks enough to get by in most circumstances, but not to answer questions from cops trying to trip him up – but unless you have a law degree, I doubt you’d get through that interview without making mistakes, either. (And the guy with a law degree would handle it by shutting up until he hired a lawyer…)

      1. Careful there. I’m on your side, but “If he “was mostly unemployed”, he wouldn’t have saved up $58,100″ sounds like an argument in favor of the money being ill-gotten.

  24. Where are these desperados names, phone numbers, email addresses, SS #s. Transparency, please.

  25. This isn’t the first time looter National Socialism has mistreated Albanians. The Transport Sozialist Arbeiterpartei robbed an elderly couple from Brazil recently and the IJ helped them cut their losses significantly. Of all the outfits pretending to be working toward the minimization of coercion, the Institute for Justice is conspicuous in that it delivers.

  26. This is another example of why we have to revise the confiscation laws. Federal, state and local police are taking property way too often on the flimsiest of evidence and refusing to return them because it has become a cash cow for them. There is no example of an abuse of power better than cases like this one.

  27. “Let’s hope the courts do the right, and legal, thing, demand CBP obey the law and return the stolen money” — Plus interest.

  28. You know I feel sorry for him, but why the fuck didn’t he transfer it to a safe country and pick it up in europe. He should have know that you can’t take large sums of money internationally or they’ll pull this shit, hoping they can distribute it later and wipe some records.

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