An immigrant family from Albania that spent 13 years saving their wages so they could help relatives in their home country is fighting the feds over $58,100 the government abruptly seized.
The Institute for Justice says its the third case of its kind they’ve fought recently.
The other two were mostly resolved, with the return of a confiscated vehicle in one case and cash in another.
The third case involves Rustem Kazazi, a 64-year-old former police officer from Albania who lives in suburban Cleveland. Carrying the family’s savings in cash, he headed to the airport for a trip to Albania to fix up a family home, possibly buy another and help family members there.
But at the airport in Cleveland, U.S. Customs and Border Protection “promptly whisked him into a small interrogation room, stripped him naked for a full-body search, interrogated him without a translator, and then seized his family’s life savings without charging anyone with a crime,” IJ said.
Rustem, his wife Lejla, and the couple’s son, Erald, and daughter immigrated to the United States in 2005 and became American citizens in 2010.
“He packed the family’s savings in three envelopes in his carry-on luggage and passed through security at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, heading to a layover at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, before ultimately flying to Albania. But CBP agents stopped him in Cleveland and took the family’s entire life savings,” IJ said.
Wesley Hottot, a lawyer working on IJ’s case on behalf of the Kazazis, argued people “have the right to travel with cash in America, even when you’re flying internationally.”
“But again, we’re encountering a situation where law enforcement sees somebody with legal cash, assumes they must have done something criminal, and they just take the money,” he said. “It is disturbing how little respect federal agents show for the civil rights of American citizens.”
The Kazazis wanted to help extended family in Albania who have been struggling financially, but the government claims the cash was “involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation,” of which “none” is true, IJ said.
“The Kazazis saved up their money from jobs they held lawfully in America, and they have 13 years of tax documents and bank statements to prove it. Moreover, the government has never pointed to any evidence of wrongdoing,” IJ said.
“Also troublingly, CBP’s letter claimed that agents seized $57,330 from Rustem – $770 less than he was actually carrying. So not only did federal agents take a family’s life savings without due process, but they did not even bother to count or report it properly, as required by law.”
Customs and Border Patrol didn’t file a forfeiture complaint, which is why IJ brought a case against the government over the family’s funds.
“The government harassed my father, stole my family’s money and is now apparently hoping we’ll just forget about it,” said Erald Kazazi. “We’re American citizens, and we came to this country because we believe America is the land of freedom and opportunity. We never imagined the government would treat its own citizens this way.”
Shortly after news reports appeared about the case, the money was returned, IJ said.
Anthonia Nwaorie was returning to her home country of Nigeria with her long-saved cash to start a medical clinic for women and children. The funds never triggered any criminal charges against the Katy, Texas, grandmother.
The government there had demanded that she sign a “Hold Harmless Release Agreement” that would waive her rights to interest on the cash or allow her to sue over anything related to the incident, such as the luggage the agents destroyed.
Last fall, CBP seized a truck from Kentucky farmer Gerardo Serrano and held it for two years without charging him with a crime. The agency returned the vehicle after IJ filed a lawsuit, but the case is ongoing.
The Kazasis’ case, “like so many others, shows why civil forfeiture must end,” said IJ attorney Johanna Talcott.
“The Kazazis did nothing wrong and were never charged with a crime, but the government still won’t return their money all these months later. This kind of abuse is far too common because civil forfeiture is an inherently abusive process that will always have disastrous effects on innocent people. Enough is enough.”