A 64-year-old man, an Albanian with legal US citizenship, was stripped of more than $58,000 in cash by Customs and Border Protection at Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport last year. Rustem Kazazi was headed to Albania with the cash to fix up his family’s old home and possibly buy property there. The CBP claims… well, it really claims nothing, other than its right to Kazazi’s life savings.
CBP agents thought it was suspicious Kazazi would have so much cash on hand, despite Kazazi also carrying with him documentation of the cash’s origin. That didn’t slow the CBP’s cash-hauling efforts at all. Asset forfeiture allowed the CBP to take Kazazi’s money, say something ominous about violating federal law by not reporting the funds, and never bother charging Kazazi for all the violations the CBP claimed it spotted.
It is illegal to take more than $10,000 in funds out of the country without reporting it. The problem is there’s nothing in airports suggesting this is the case. Literature at airports, as well as information posted at the TSA’s own website, do little to clarify what must be done if you plan to take money out of the country. Even if you do know what needs to be done, it’s almost impossible to do before boarding a flight. The funds must be reported at the time of the departure. But they must be reported to a customs office, which is rarely conveniently located on airport property and very definitely never in the terminal.
What’s more, Kazazi was apparently planning to follow the law. According to his lawyer, he was going to fill out the forms at the “point of departure,” which he assumed would be the Newark, NJ airport where his flight leaving the country would depart from.
Kazazi’s money was spotted by a TSA agent, who immediately reported it to CBP officers. This is something the CBP and DEA strongly encourage, skewing the focus from airline security (which is part of TSA’s name) to scanning for dollars. The CBP agents made sure the whole experience was as awful as possible for Kazazi (whose command of the English language is limited) even before they walked off with his money.
“They asked me some questions, which I could not understand as they spoke too quickly,” according to Kazazi’s declaration. “I asked them for an interpreter and asked to call my family, but they denied my request.”
The CBP agents led Kazazi to a small windowless room and conducted multiple searches of him and his belongings, he said. According to Kazazi’s declaration, the agents asked him to remove all of his clothing and gave him a blanket to cover the lower portion of his body. Kazazi said that a man wearing rubber gloves then “started searching different areas of my body.”
After failing to find more cash hidden in the crevices of Kazazi’s body, the CBP agents gave him a receipt for the money they were taking — one with no dollar amount written in — and handed out this fluff to the press when it came asking questions.
In a statement, a CBP spokesman said that “pursuant to an administrative search of Mr. Kazazi and his bags, TSA agents discovered artfully concealed U.S. currency. Mr. Kazazi provided inconsistent statements regarding the currency, had no verifiable source of income and possessed evidence of structuring activity,” that is, making cash withdrawals of less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.
The “artful concealment” was paper and the “inconsistent statements” can probably be chalked up to CBP’s refusal to locate a translator. Cash spends better in foreign countries, especially those — like Albania — where banks aren’t trusted and foreign currency preferable to the local version.
Following this seizure, the CBP then did nothing, apparently hoping the Kazazi family would never ask for the money back. It had 90 days to begin to process the forfeiture but it chose instead to give conflicting information to Kazazi (detailed in his son’s declaration [PDF]) and push the family towards “settling” for only a portion of the funds seized.
The Kazazis chose to sue because, obviously, they don’t trust the CBP to handle this honestly. First off, the CBP claims it took $57,330. Kazazi disputes this amount, stating he had $58,100 with him. The $770 difference may seem minimal, but it appears to another indicator of the CBP’s untrustworthiness. According to Kazazi, he only took $100 bills. Therefore, a total of $57,330 is impossible. It almost looks as though the CBP took an unofficial service fee off the top before notifying the Kazazis of their right to dispute the forfeiture.
The Institute of Justice has stepped in to fight for Kazazis, like it has in many other asset forfeiture cases. As it points out in its lawsuit [PDF], CBP had until April 17 of this year to begin processing the forfeiture. It hasn’t and federal law says unprocessed forfeitures that pass the 90-day expiration date must be returned in full to their owners.
Fortunately for Kazazi, this legal battle may be over already. Kazazi sued on May 31st. Following a conference with a district judge, the CBP has decided to return all of the money it took. Well, almost all of it.
The minutes of the proceeding says that customs officials told the judge that “they were beginning the process of tendering a check to Petitioner Kazazi in the amount of $57,330 plus interest.”
There will be a little more legal wrangling because Kazazi wants back every cent the government took: $58,100. A bench trial has been scheduled, but it will be December of this year before his case is heard.
This whole debacle shows two things: asset forfeiture ain’t dead yet, despite its high-profile reputation for being thinly-disguised theft. And it shows the government can be forced to do the right thing without having to undertake a long and expensive legal battle. The turning point here appears to be plenty of negative coverage from the press, rather than the legal filing. But the lawsuit helps, as it makes it crystal clear the CBP is violating federal law by holding onto it past the 90-day deadline for processing.