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Too many American dreams are stolen by civil asset forfeiture

| July 3, 2018

(Photo by Institute for Justice)

People come to the United States to build a better life. A large part of that is the opportunity to earn a living in a land where hard work can pay off – literally.

Ohioan Rustem Kazazi learned that first-hand. At the age of 64, and after many years of hard work, he decided to take twelve years’ worth of savings ($58,100) back to Albania. That’s when he discovered an unfortunate reality: the same U.S. government that encourages prosperity can also take it. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents seized Kazazi’s savings while he was going through security at the airport.

How is this possible?

CBP agents took his cash through a little-known practice called civil asset forfeiture. It allows government agencies and law enforcement officers to seize cash and property that is merely suspected of being tied to criminal activity. What’s worse is that there is no requirement for a criminal conviction to be reached before the cash or property is forfeited. The burden of proof is wrongly placed on the property owner to prove their own innocence—leaving an often expensive, uphill legal battle as the only route for retrieving said property or life savings.

Right on Crime conducted a poll last year revealing that 88 percent of Texans support the idea that a criminal conviction should be reached before the government can forfeit someone’s property. Senior researcher and retired police officer Randy Petersen says that Kazazi’s case “points out the problem is not an abuse of the system, but the system itself.”

CBP claimed Kazazi’s savings were tied to drug smuggling. Yet they have not produced any proof. He is now being represented by the Institute for Justice, which defends the fact that he has tax documents to prove his savings were profited from honest work. Federal law requires that agencies either return what’s been seized or file charges within 90 days. That deadline has passed.

This story is only one of many.

Similar to Kazazi, Anthonia Nwaorie had her savings seized through civil asset forfeiture as she was in an airport, traveling out of the country. When she contested the seizure, Customs agents demanded that she sign an agreement not to sue the bureau. Nwaorie declined and joined forces with IJ to file a class action lawsuit instead. The Texas woman was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief after her seized funds were returned. Unfortunately, even after the CBP agreed to return Kazazi’s funds, the cited amount did not match what he packed back in October. Cleveland.com reported there will be a hearing on Dec. 10 in federal court over the missing $770.

Even if the CBP was $1 short, this should disturb every American. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to due process. Civil asset forfeiture was used in America’s infancy to combat piracy by seizing ships used for criminal activity. With that in perspective, consider that Kazazi was traveling to buy a vacation home and to help support some of his family back in Albania. Nwaorie was on her way to open a medical clinic in Nigeria. Neither of these are criminal acts, nor do these intentions check any boxes that justifies the government seizing their hard-earned savings.

While America has a robust constitution full of inalienable rights that few other countries can replicate, it’s practices like civil asset forfeiture that make those rights seem fragile. Reforming civil asset forfeiture laws to require a criminal conviction prior to assets being forfeited would strengthen individual liberties. Without reform, everyday Americans will continue to be at risk of having their life savings taken from them. That negates the freedom to pursue prosperity.

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KATIE GREER joined Right on Crime in April 2017 and currently serves as the Communications Manager.

Before joining Right on Crime, Greer most recently worked as a Communications Specialist for a statewide trade association. She came to Austin by way of lobbyist Bill Pewitt after successfully campaigning to elect Texas’ 48th Governor Greg Abbott. A 5th generation Texan, Greer took a detour to Mississippi where she earned a Bachelors in Communication Studies from Millsaps College. She came back to Texas as fast as she could.

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