Under the federal civil asset forfeiture law, the U.S. Government can seize a person’s home, car, money, or property if law enforcement suspects any of these assets were involved in criminal activity. The person from whom the assets are seized need not be charged, much less, convicted of a crime. That’s because civil asset forfeiture, unlike a criminal asset forfeiture, is not an action against the person, but is an in rem action against the property; in effect, the property is charged with criminal wrongdoing, not the individual.
The notion that property can be guilty of a crime arises from the Medieval idea known today as the “concept of deodand.” This doctrine can be traced back to Kings who could seize the instrument that caused a person’s death and sell it off to pay the deceased’s funeral costs. It was a superstitious belief that objects could act independently to cause someone’s death; therefore, the object, as well as its wielder, was guilty of the murderous act.
Legal Origins of Asset Forfeiture
While the ridiculous notion that property can be guilty of a crime has Medieval origins, its legal origin can be found in the mid-17th century British Navigation Acts whose purpose was to expand Britain’s naval power by requiring that all imports and exports be carried on British ships. If the Acts were violated, British authorities could seize the ship and its cargo for the Crown regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence.
Although the colonialists had rebelled against this kind of authoritarian rule by the Crown, the Institute for Justice in a 2010 report titled “Policing for Profit” said the first U.S. Congress “passed forfeiture statutes to aid in the collection of customs duties, which provided 80 to 90 percent of the finances for the federal government during that time.” The U.S. Supreme Court in 1827 upheld the government’s forfeiture power. The court reasoned that in rem proceedings made it easier and more convenient for a court to secure jurisdiction over property when it could not acquire jurisdiction over the property’s owner.
Feds Seize Two Billion in Assets from Uncharged Individuals
Today, nearly 200 years after the Supreme Court gave constitutional blessing to the modern version of deodand, the Washington Post reported that the federal government in 2017 alone seized $2 billion in assets from Americans who had not been charged or convicted of a crime.
One of those was a native Albanian named Rustem Kazazi.
The retired police officer, and his family, in 2005 received visas through a U.S. State Department lottery program. According to the Post, the entire Kazazi family became American citizens in 2010. There is no evidence that either he or his family ever committed or were ever charged with any criminal wrongdoing while in this country. For the past several years, Kazazi had wanted to return to his native Albania with his life savings to visit relatives and repair an old family home.
The Kazazi family, who live in a Cleveland, Ohio suburb called Parma Heights, made all the travel plans. Kazazi’s wife, Lejla, and his son Erald, a chemical engineering student at Cleveland State University, would accompany Rustem on the trip. They had saved $58,100 in U.S. cash—a lot of money for an Albanian family who worked hard for it. The problem was that Rustem did not trust banks—and given the sordid histories of Albanian banks, one could hardly blame him.
“The crime [rate in Albania] is much worse than it is here,” the Post quoted Kazazi as explaining. “Other people that have made large withdrawals [from Albanian banks] have had people intercept them and take their money. The exchange rates and fees are [also] excessive.”
Besides his distrust for his native country’s banking system, Kazazi was operating with the knowledge that home repair contractors in Albania prefer dollars and euros over Albanian currency. That’s why, he said, Albanians returning home for visits take large amounts of cash home with them.
Proving a Negative, That Money is Not Contraband, is Un-American
Before his planned trip home last October 24, the Post said Kazazi put three “counted and labeled bundles” of the $58.100 in his carry-on bag. He had with him receipts of the bank withdrawals and documentation on his family property in Albania. He believed he had done everything necessary to protect his money.
As Kazazi was going through the pre-flight security protocols at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees discovered Kazazi’s cash during a routine bag check. They alerted Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel about their find. CBP agents pulled Kazazi aside and began to interrogate him about the money as they conducted a strip body search.
The intense interrogation and search did not reveal any evidence of contraband or criminal wrongdoing. The CBP agents seized Kazazi’s $58,100 and gave him a receipt that did not disclose the amount of money they had seized. Kazazi and his family believed the seizure was a mistake until they realized the federal government had actually stolen their money.
Kazazi’s secured the services of Wesley Hottot with the Institute for Justice who fights to overturn civil forfeitures. He advised the family that they had to go to court to prove their innocence.
“You have to affirmatively show you’re not a criminal to get your own money back,” Hottot told the Post. “You have to effectively prove a negative.”
A month after their life savings had been seized, the Kazazi family received this notice from the federal government: “This is to notify you that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) seized the property described below at Cleveland, OH on October 24, 2017: $57,330 in U.S. Currency. Enforcement activity indicates that the current was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.”
Corruption and Theft Endemic in Seizures
The official notice was $770 short of the $58,100 seized, indicating one of the CBP agents at the airport lined his pockets with some of the money, Hottot said this is not unusual. The government receipts are routinely less than the actual amount seized supporting the notion that corruption and theft are endemic in the first level seizure process.
The government’s theory that the seized money was associated with criminal activity was based on three factors: Kazazi had no verifiable source of income, he withdrew the $58,100 from his bank in amounts less than $10,000 avoid government reporting, and he failed to comply with international travel requirements to declare money in excess of $10,000—something Kazazi had planned to do in Newark, New Jersey once he changed flights for his international flight.
The problem with these factors is that two of them did not exist at the airport when CBP decided to seize the $58,100—and since Kazazi had not yet arrived at Newark for the international flight, he was under no binding duty to declare the money for the scheduled flight between Cleveland and Newark. The disclosure form instructs an international traveler to declare money in excess of $10,000 “at the time of departure from the United States with the Customs officer in charge at any Customs port of entry or departure.” The Cleveland airport was not a port of departure—Newark was.
Law Suits to Recover Seized Money
Hottot has sued the government in federal court to have the money returned to Kazazi.
The Kazazi family has been devastated by the federal government’s unlawful actions against them. The entire episode has affected Kazazi’s health as he faces the prospect of losing his entire savings for no reasons.
“He (Rustem) is not going to let the actions of some employees that made a mistake in their duties change his opinion of the country,” Erald Kazazi told the Post about his father.
Trump and Beauregard Want to Stael More of Your Money
Not only does the Trump administration, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in particular, want more asset forfeitures, they have moved from property asset forfeiture to child forfeiture seizures. Under this administration’s seizure policies, the federal government is now seizing the children of parents who commit the misdemeanor offense of illegally entering this country. The children, regardless of age, are assigned to government purchased warehouses, placed in fenced/wire cages (with only one blanket to lay on), and then transported thousands of miles from their grieving parents. A recent New York Times report found that the government not only removed children from their parents, but had most track and could not locate them, most likely because they haven’t found a way to monetize these assets.
Increased civil asset forfeiture and children seizures are now integral components of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”