Customs stole a US citizen's life savings when he boarded a domestic flight, now he's suing to get it back

Rustem Kazazi is a 67-year-old retired Albanian policeman who became a US citizen in 2010; last October, he boarded a flight from his hometown in Cleveland to Newark, planning to continue on to Albania.

Kazazi was carrying $58,100 in plainly labeled bank note bundles, along with receipts for his withdrawals and documentation showing that the funds were to be spent on a property in Tirana, Albania for his relatives.

Cleveland TSA officials found the money and alerted Customs and Border Protection, who repeatedly questioned Kazazi, denying him an interpreter (his English is not fluent), strip searching him, and, eventually, confiscating his life's savings under civil asset forfeiture rules.

CBP has not charged Kazazi with any crimes or civil infractions, but under civil asset forfeiture rules, they don't have to. It's not Kazazi who's under suspicion -- it's the money, and it is literally presumed guilty until proven innocent. Kazazi has to pay out of his own pocket for a lawyer to sue the government to defend his money and prove that it is not proceeds from a crime.

Kazazi was carrying cash because Albanians who pick up large cash sums from wire transfers in Albania are often robbed, and even when they aren't, they're hit with large fees and poor exchange rates (I have experienced this firsthand, when I wired cash to my family in St Petersburg, Russia to pay for my great-uncle's headstone).

CBP seized all the cash after Kazazi refused an "offer in compromise" that would let them skim a percentage of it in exchange for his promise not to sue them.

Under the loose civil asset forfeiture rules, CBP had 90 days to file a forfeiture case against Kazazi's money. They didn't even bother.

Obama's DOJ had instructed federal officials to cease the seizure of assets under forfeiture rules; Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions renewed the practice and instructed officials to aggressively steal stuff from Americans. In 2014, US cops stole more cash and valuables from Americans under asset forfeiture than all the burglars stole in the same period.

Erald Kazazi said they are pursuing a court case because they do not trust the internal CBP process. “They were the ones that seized our money,” he said. “We wanted another party like the attorney's office to deal with this case. Based on my father's experience it didn't seem like CBP really wanted to help us out.”

Under federal forfeiture law, the government was required to initiate a forfeiture case within 90 days after the Kazazis responded to the seizure notice. If they failed to initiate a forfeiture case within that window, they would be required to promptly return the money to the claimants.

That deadline passed over a month ago, on April 17. CBP has not filed a forfeiture complaint; nor has it returned the money. Erald Kazazi said he has called CBP several times was told that the case was now with the U.S. attorney's office in Ohio and that CBP had no additional information on it. So this week the Kazazis filed their lawsuit, demanding the immediate return of their property.

The U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Ohio declined to comment on the record.

A 64-year-old put his life savings in his carry-on. U.S. Customs took it without charging him with a crime. [Christopher Ingraham/Washington Post]

(via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: Pictures of Money , CC-BY; Tobias "ToMar" Maier, CC-BY-SA)

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