A New Orleans grandfather says the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) took his life savings based on flimsy accusations of drug trafficking and without ever charging him with a crime. Now he's fighting to get it back.
Kermit Warren, a former longshoreman, says he and his son had gotten laid off from their jobs last year during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and he was trying to turn a side-business as a scrapper into a full-time venture. To that end, he and his son traveled to Ohio with roughly $28,000 to purchase a tow truck.
However, Warren claims the tow truck was too large for his needs, so he and his son bought a one-way ticket back home. In the airport, three DEA agents stopped the two men and questioned them about the bag of cash they were carrying.
The complaint against Warren's money filed in federal court says Warren and his son gave suspicious and incomplete answers about their travel itinerary and plans to buy the truck. Based on that, the agents seized his money. The complaint alleges that a drug dog later alerted on the cash, and that the DEA had previously received a tip of drug trafficking activity at his son's residence. Warren denies any involvement in drug activity.
The government is now seeking to keep Warren's money forever through a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, despite there being no concrete evidence that he was involved in drug trafficking. Warren is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has filed several lawsuits on behalf of people who had significant amounts of cash seized from them at airports on the mere suspicion of drug trafficking.
"The government shouldn't be able to take every dollar I've saved up when I've committed no crime," Kermit said in an Institute for Justice press release announcing his case. "Since they seized my money it has been very difficult for me to provide for my family and pay my bills. The way the government has treated me made me feel like dirt. I hope not only to get my money back, but to stop this nightmare from happening to anyone else."
Although there is nothing illegal about flying domestically with large amounts of undeclared cash, federal and local law enforcement have a habit of seizing currency from travelers under civil asset forfeiture laws. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property—cash, cars, guns, houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never charged or convicted of a crime.
The Institute for Justice is currently litigating a separate class-action lawsuit on behalf of people whose cash was seized by the DEA at airports. One of the lead plaintiffs in that case, Stacy Jones, had $43,167 in cash seized by the DEA as she was trying to fly home to Tampa, Florida, from Wilmington, North Carolina. Jones says the cash was from the sale of a used car, as well as money she and her husband intended to take to a casino.
One of the other named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Terrence Rolin, a 79-year-old retired railroad engineer, had his life savings of $82,373 seized by the DEA after his daughter tried to take it on a flight out of Pittsburgh with the intent of depositing it in a bank. After the case went public, the DEA returned the money.
The DEA also agreed to return the cash it seized from Jones, but the Institute for Justice argues that the DEA and Transportation Security Administration's practice of seizing cash from travelers at airports violates the Fourth Amendment.
The DEA and TSA often flag airport travelers who exhibit supposedly suspicious behavior, such as purchasing one-way tickets with short turnaround times and traveling lightly. In 2016, a USA Today investigation found the DEA seized more than $209 million from at least 5,200 travelers in 15 major airports over the previous decade.
"DEA's practice of 'see money, seize money' counts on people's inability to navigate the maze of civil forfeiture proceedings in order to get their property back," Institute for Justice attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili said in a press release. "The government shouldn't be able to keep a person's life savings without a related criminal conviction. But people like Kermit are essentially forced to prove their innocence just to keep what they worked so hard to earn. And law enforcement agencies use that money to pad their own policing budgets. This abuse needs to end."