The federal government has agreed to return a New Orleans man's life savings after Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents seized it at an airport through a practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, announced that federal prosecutors have agreed to dismiss the government's case against roughly $28,000 in cash the DEA seized from Kermit Warren, a grandfather who says he was carrying the money to potentially buy a tow truck. Warren was never charged with a crime, but under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even when the owner hasn't been charged or convicted of a crime.
Reason reported on Warren's civil asset forfeiture case in August. Warren, a former longshoreman and shoeshiner, 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. He and his son traveled to Ohio last November with the cash 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 federal government didn't file a complaint against Warren's money until this April, claiming Warren and his son gave suspicious and incomplete answers about their travel itinerary and plans to buy the truck. Warren, who says he was panicking, also falsely claimed to be a retired police officer. Based on that, the agents concluded that Warren was involved in drug trafficking and seized his money.
Last Thursday, after the Institute for Justice provided pay stubs for Warren dating back to 2016 and text messages from the company that owned the tow truck, federal prosecutors agreed to dismiss the forfeiture complaint against Warren's money and return it.
"I'm relieved that I will finally get my hard-earned savings back after a year of suffering," Warren said in an Institute for Justice press release. "But what happened to me was wrong. The officers and prosecutors treated me like a criminal when all I was trying to do was improve my business and my life. For a year, they've left me struggling to survive a pandemic and a hurricane without my savings. I did nothing wrong, but until the law is changed so that everyone is protected, I am not going to have cash in my house anymore."
There is nothing illegal about flying domestically with large amounts of cash, but local and federal law enforcement frequently stop travelers, search their luggage, and seize their cash on suspicion of drug trafficking, even if they find no drugs.
The DEA and Transportation Security Administration 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.
Law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is an essential tool to fight organized crime, like drug trafficking, by targeting its illicit proceeds.
However, civil liberties groups say there are too few protections for innocent owners and too many incentives for police to seize property on flimsy suspicions. More than half of all U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform because of those concerns.
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.
"Kermit's case highlights how the federal government abuses civil forfeiture," says Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban. "It seizes cash on the flimsiest of pretexts—traveling with cash at an airport—and effectively forces people to prove their own innocence to get their money back. And even in a best-case scenario, it can take over a year for them to get their property back."