Civil Asset Forfeiture

Arizona Returns $39,000 Seized From Man at Phoenix Airport Through Civil Asset Forfeiture

Police detectives accused Jerry Johnson of being a drug trafficker and seized cash he says he intended to use to buy a semitruck at auction. He was never charged with a crime.


A North Carolina man will get back more than $39,000 in cash after police seized it from him at the Phoenix airport, despite never charging him with a crime. 

Reason previously reported on the civil forfeiture case of Jerry Johnson. Johnson owns a trucking company and says he flew to Phoenix in 2020 to possibly purchase a semitruck at auction. Police detectives approached him at baggage claim, accused him of being a drug trafficker, and seized $39,500 from him.

It's legal to fly domestically with large amounts of cash, but under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, whether or not the owner of the property has been charged with a crime.

Johnson tried to challenge the seizure, presenting bank statements and tax returns to establish ownership of his money, but the judge in his case ruled that because of inconsistencies in his story and circumstantial evidence offered by prosecutors—an old criminal record, buying a last-minute ticket with a quick turnaround, his nervous appearance in the airport, having three cellphones, and the alleged odor of marijuana on the cash—Johnson hadn't established a legitimate interest in the cash.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, picked up Johnson's case on appeal, and now, after a two-year legal odyssey, the state is returning his money.

Institute for Justice senior attorney Dan Alban said in a press release that Johnson's case "potently illustrates the injustice of civil forfeiture even when someone ultimately gets their property back."

"It took 31 months for Jerry to finally get his savings back even though he was never even charged with a crime," Alban said. "In the middle of the COVID pandemic, Jerry had to find a way to keep operating his small trucking business after its working capital was seized while also scraping together money to hire an attorney (before IJ took his case)."

Law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is an essential tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting its illicit proceeds. However, civil liberties groups across the political spectrum argue that the practice lacks due process protections and frequently ensnares innocent property owners, who then bear the burden of going to court and proving their innocence.

More than half of all states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past decade in response to these concerns. Arizona passed civil asset forfeiture reforms in 2017 to raise the evidentiary threshold for forfeitures from a "preponderance of evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence," and in 2021, it became the 16th state to require a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited

Airports are a particularly lucrative spot for police fishing for cash to seize. A 2016 USA Today investigation found the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than $209 million from at least 5,200 travelers in 15 major airports over the previous decade. The Institute for Justice is 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.

"It's a blessing to finally have my savings back so that I can invest it in my business," Johnson said in the press release. "That the government could take my money, never charge me with a crime but hold onto my savings for so long is outrageous. It created a tremendous financial burden for me and my family, and there were a lot of business opportunities I've missed out on because that money was just sitting in a government account."

However, the Institute for Justice says the case isn't finished; the state of Arizona is refusing to compensate Johnson for attorneys' fees or interest accrued on his money during the years it was seized.

"We're glad that the money has been returned," Alban said, "but Jerry still needs to be made whole."