Lawsuit: CBP Took $240,000 From Man And Refused To Respond To His Forfeiture Challenge Until It Had Already Processed It

from the because-barely-any-due-process-is-far-too-much-due-process dept

Looks like someone might be getting their money back after CBP agents — operating a great distance from the US borders — seized $240,000 from a man traveling through Indiana. While driving along I-70 outside of Indianapolis last November, Najeh Muhana was pulled over for not signalling a lane change. That’s when things got weird and a bit unconstitutional.

According to his filing for return of his money, Muhana’s vehicle was searched “without consent, warrant or probable cause.” The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department officers even brought a drug dog to the scene, but failed to uncover any contraband. The $240,000 Muhana was carrying caught their eye, though.

Muhana (correctly) intuited the officers wanted to take his money. So he told them he had just been talking to the person the money was owed to. This story, which was untrue, seemed to upset the officers, who spent the next hour discussing something presumably related to how they could take the cash from Muhana — because that is exactly what they eventually did.

This decision was made when CBP agent Scott Thompson — operating roughly 250 miles from the nearest border — arrived on the scene. Thompson took the money and gave Muhana a “receipt for property.” Muhana, whose native language is Arabic, took this to mean the money would be returned when the CBP finished its investigation into whatever it was it thought was going on here.

Shortly after that, the Sheriff’s Department took Muhana into custody based on a traffic stop that had occurred four months earlier in another state. Details on that arrest suggest Muhana may have been involved in selling unlicensed cigarettes.

Najeh Muhana, 39, St. Louis, was preliminarily charged with possession of untaxed cigarettes, according to a Henry County Jail List.

Muhana’s charges stem from an incident that initially began on I-70 in July when members of the Pro Active Criminal Enforcement Team pulled over his rental van for unsafe lane movement. Blankets covered the cargo area and police confiscated 2,400 cartons of Newport cigarettes, valued at more than $147,000, and 650 cans of infant formula, valued at $10,500.

The cigarettes had a Missouri tax stamp, said Major Jay Davis of the Henry County Sheriff’s Department, noting that in Indiana, it is illegal to possess such items without an Indiana tax stamp.

During this stop — which occurred in November — officers uncovered nothing more than cash. They may have believed the two were related, but they never bothered connecting the dots for the benefit of Muhana, much less used it as a basis for the cash seizure.

In fact, all the involved agencies did was pass the buck — along with Muhana’s bucks — whenever he sought information on how to work towards the return of his money. The filing details multiple attempts to obtain any confirmation on the forfeiture, or who he should speak to in order to get the process underway. Further, there’s no record that Muhana was ever notified of the CBP’s intent to pursue forfeiture — nothing beyond the mysterious “receipt for property” the CBP agent gave him.

Muhana began making inquiries a few weeks after the money was taken, beginning in December 2015. In January, CBP agent Scott Thompson told him the case had been turned over to the CBP’s Ohio office. The following Kafka-esque chain of events is directly from the filing.

On or before January 19, 2016, Mr. Muhana’s counsel contacted Eartha Graham, Paralegal Specialist, U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Middleburg, Ohio regarding the status of the Currency.

On January 19, 2016, Ms. Graham responded via email to counsel, stating, “I will need something in writing preferably on company letterhead stating you are representing Mr. Muhana asap.”

[…]

On January 20, 2016, counsel followed up with a facsimile to Ms. Graham, in writing,

In response to your email to me yesterday, this will confirm that I represent Najeh Mulhana relating to the seizure of three (3) bags of currency by the US. Customs Service on or about November 6, 2015, in Indiana. The seizing officer was Special Agent Thompson. Mr. Muhana is requesting return of the money.

On January 26, 2016, counsel again contacted Ms. Graham related to the Currency, asking, “Will the agency be sending me some notification regarding its intentions relating to the seized money?” She responded, “Yes, we will be sending something out soon.”

On February 1, 2016, Ms. Graham followed up again with an email to counsel stating, “I just received word from our counsel to request a written statement sign (sic) by Mr. Muhana, stating you will be representing him for currency case.” The same day, Mr. Muhana’s counsel sent Ms. Graham an email with a copy of the law firm’s engagement letter attached.

On February 8, 2016, counsel received a letter from Tessie Douglas, FP&F Officer, US. Customs and Border Protection, Middleburg, Ohio, dated February 4, 2016. In the letter Ms. Douglas stated,

This is with reference to your inquiry on behalf of your client Mr. Najehm Muhana, about the currency that was seized on November 6, 2015.

The circumstances of this case have been reviewed. It has been determined that since your client waived his rights to the currency by signing the abandonment form, he cannot make claims on the currency. The forfeiture process was completed on February 1, 2016.

The next day, Muhana’s lawyer wrote back, pointing out several things. First, he had received nothing in the way of a signed waiver by Mr. Muhana indicating his relinquishment of ownership. Furthermore, even if Muhana had signed something of that sort during the arrest, he is unable to read or write in English and may not have known what he was signing. In addition, even if such a signed waiver exists, there’s nothing forbidding Muhana from attempting to correct his mistake during the time between the seizure and its finalization. Muhana’s attorney demanded the CBP provide him with a copy of the supposed waiver.

A reasonable request, one would think, especially when a quarter of a million dollars was on the line. But guess what? The CBP doesn’t turn over that sort of paperwork to people it’s taking money from. It will only turn that paperwork over to anyone who asks for it using a completely unrelated process. And that’s only if it decides it isn’t covered by multiple investigation-related exemptions. Behold: your tax dollars at work, giving you the finger over its cubicle wall.

There was no response until March 7, 2016. This time, counsel received an email from Rose Parks, Paralegal Specialist, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Cleveland, which stated as follows:

The subject-referenced case has been re-assigned to me, as Ms. Graham has left our department. Per my supervisors, we do not provide copies of abandonment forms. To obtain a copy of the form, you would need to file a FOIA request.

Muhana’s lawyer fired right back, hoping to find someone willing to provide more info on the up-to-this-point nonexistent waiver.

Ms. Parks:

Thank you for your message. Please confirm that the Agency has referred this matter to the US Attorneys’ Office per my prior email for determination regarding forfeiture. Again, my client is making claim to the money. I understood from my conversations with Ms. Graham that the case had been re-assigned to the US Attorney for that purpose. If I have misunderstood her, please let me know immediately.

Nothing there for Mr. Muhana either.

Ms. Parks then stated as follows in her follow-up response: “The currency has been forfeited and the case is closed. No referral is being made.”

The money is gone, apparently, after having skipped some necessary intermediate steps. As the filing points out, the government must notify involved parties of the intent to pursue a forfeiture. This is to give people like Najeh Muhana a very slim window in which to raise a challenge. Muhana’s lawyer says that — contrary to the law — he was never given written notice of the agency’s intentions.

The agency claims (sort of) that it had no obligation to do so because Muhana had disclaimed his ownership of it. But the chain of communications clearly show Muhana had both claimed ownership and was interested in pursuing its recovery. The agent directly involved with the seizure was made aware of this in December 2015, less than a month after the funds were taken. The agency itself was notified in writing of Muhana’s intent to challenge in January 2016 — well before the agency’s February 1st declaration that the money had been forfeited.

As Muhana’s lawyer points out, this is clearly bullshit.

Here, the Agency knew that Mr. Muhana was claiming to be the owner of the Currency through the repeated inquiries of his counsel. Rather than acknowledge those inquiries and respond to them, the Agency delayed any response until after February 1, 2016, when it unilaterally declared a forfeiture of the Currency. Thus, despite actual knowledge that Mr. Muhana was the owner of the Currency, the Agency refused to provide written notice to him about the Currency being seized and the Agency’s intention to declare a forfeiture.

Given what’s detailed here, it strongly appears as though the CBP processed a forfeiture while skipping past all the due process niceties. If so, Muhana is likely to not only prevail, but “strongly prevail” in his claim against the agency, which means it will not only have to give him back his $240,000 but pay his legal fees as well.

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Comments on “Lawsuit: CBP Took $240,000 From Man And Refused To Respond To His Forfeiture Challenge Until It Had Already Processed It”

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56 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

...and who pays for this?

So CBP illegally forfeits a quarter of a million dollars, skips due process, and then ends up in a court case they will surely lose.

Which they don’t really care about, as the worst that can happen is that they have to hand the money back and pay (reasonable) lawyer’s fees. That payment, of course, is funded by the taxpayer, not out of their own pockets.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: ...and who pays for this?

Voting against those assholes is still voting for just different assholes.

And voting against alleged non-assholes is spoiling the vote for the slightly-less-evil asshole.

If we’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt that the elections aren’t rigged (e.g. Gerrymandered) and that these officials could somehow fix the tyranny, the system is still way broken.

Look up criticisms of FPTP elections. Then re-assign your blame accordingly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: ...and who pays for this?

Your stupid logic is circular and reads more like, if you can’t beat the, just roll the fuck over like a bitch.

Elections are Rigged, starting with the Party system… it is the very reason parties get started. People stupidly think the parties are for like minded people to team up and have a bigger voice when it really is just a 3rd party holding shit over everyone’s head saying, be in my party or get nothing, and if you work in my party… well you fucking work for the party NOT the people.

If the people “tolerate” corruption in their government then they are NEVER innocent, and deserve to pay!

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 ...and who pays for this?

You can’t blame the people. They’re just people.

They’re not always rational.

They’re not eternally vigilant.

They’re biased as hell.

They’d be pretty content with bread and circuses.

They tolerate a lot of shit. And they cause a lot of shit for all the wrong reasons.

But they’re the same people that every other civilization gets.

Whether we try a model based on reciprocity and equality, or a model based on elitism and manipulation of the masses (because they’re really easily manipulated) is up to us.

Some people would rather be kings of third-world police-state banana republics than middle-managers of star-spanning cultural and humanitarian republics.

Whatever (profile) says:

Yet, for all of this, nobody can explain why this guy was driving around with a quarter of a million dollars in cash in his car.

Let’s just say the police were not wrong to be suspicious. No sane person does what this guy was doing, unless they don’t want anyone to know that they have that much cash and what they are using it for.

JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Who cares why he has the money in his car. Some people don’t trust banks!!! Doesn’t matter why, there was no drugs or anything illegal in his car and he did nothing wrong other then not signal a lane change, which 99% of the people out there don’t seem to do these days.

I know I would have refused to let the police search my car. Go get your dog, whatever. See MONEY, Lottery WIN for them!!!
Doesn’t matter if it was meant for the Red Cross.

shyra says:

Re: -Whatever-

re: No sane person does what this guy was doing, unless they don’t want anyone to know that they have that much cash and what they are using it for.

Not necessarily true at all. When I worked with foreign students at our school, it was not unusual for them to travel with large amounts of money from one school to the next. We discouraged it; encouraged cashier’s checks, etc. Hopefully, with all the “law enforcement” using any excuse to pull someone over for “driving while not white” these days, those foreign students of today are properly worried enough they ship all valuables ahead of them, instead of carrying them.

Who’d have thought we’d have to warn visitors to this country of “highwaymen” in the 21st century!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are a complete and utter foolish person (I use person since I don’t know if you are male, female, or it). Why he was carrying the money is none of your business nor anyone else’s for that matter.

Sane people do this all the time, in the expectation that the police are actually law abiding and doing their job properly.

If you call them insane for doing this, we can only assume that you know that the law enforcement agencies are corrupt and criminal and approve of their behaviour and morals. Since they are the only ones who regularly pull people over.

As evidenced by the official complaints, the various law enforcement agents were simply looking for a score. Nothing they did was according to the law, nothing – up to and including the original stop.

May you find yourself in this position each and every day for the next 10 years. May you be a witness to your own downfall at the hands of such people. Because you are still in the mindset of guilty until proven innocent.

I wonder if you are the recipient of tainted cash and goods from such criminal law enforcement.

Finally answer a question, how often do you have …?

Just me says:

Re: Re: Whatever

traveling across state lines with any amount over 10,000 is against federal money laundering statutes. With large amounts of cash sometimes transactions are made with out paying sales tax. My father traveled with bearer bond during the collapse of the early 80’s. They are not cash so that was a work around back then. They are no longer issued. Long Live Bitcoin.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

And this is what I find creepier about authoritarian boot-lickers than anything else. They demand strict adherence to the laws and rules that have been put in place to govern our behavior, regardless of how logically incoherent these laws may be. They’re absolutists.

Yet the second something like this comes up, they blow off basic principles like “innocent until proven guilty” and “due process” and “evidence” in favor of “the gut feelings of people who wear matching outfits and badges”. The Whatevers of the nation are the biggest fucking enemies of law and justice we have.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yet, for all of this, nobody can explain why this guy was driving around with a quarter of a million dollars in cash in his car.

The short answer is “none of your fucking business.”

If they’re suspicious, they can investigate. You seem to want to allow them to skip that part, go right to “he’s guilty” and take his cash.

What an asshole you are!

That One Guy (profile) says:

You'd like to think so...

Given what’s detailed here, it strongly appears as though the CBP processed a forfeiture while skipping past all the due process niceties. If so, Muhana is likely to not only prevail, but “strongly prevail” in his claim against the agency, which means it will not only have to give him back his $240,000 but pay his legal fees as well.

Even with such a blatant cash-grab it’s unfortunately entirely possible that a by-the-book judge will declare that since he ‘waited too long’ the money’s no longer his, and he’s out both a quarter million and his legal fees because for far too many judges and lawmakers armed robbery is perfectly acceptable if the one(s) doing it have badges.

And of course the very idea that those involved will be punished is utterly absurd, they managed to steal a quarter million for the agency and stall long enough that they might very well be able to keep it, I imagine after a stunt like this they’ll be looking not at demotion but promotion or a bonus.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What do you mean "by-the-book" judge?

considering how those in charge view people that support and believe in constitutional rights as dangerous terrorists. The few judges that will defend those rights are getting removed bit by bit. They are badly outnumbered by those that support a police state instead.

Digger says:

Grand Theft Charges should be filed.

Everyone on the government side of this should have grand theft and / or larceny charges filed against them, and double the jail time as it is a slam dunk case.

They did not follow proper procedures, they no longer have the protection or immunity to prosecution normally afforded to government agents.

By failing to follow procedure, they’ve shown their true colors and should be treated as the criminals that they are.

Anonymous Coward says:

is that all?

“which means it will not only have to give him back his $240,000 but pay his legal fees as well.

What about damages? What about interest? They wrongfully seized his property and time went by while his property was in their possession. He is due damages and interest in addition to lawyers (and any other relevant) fees, court costs and of course his original seized cash.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Freedoms are being lost every day

It’s in their nature. Part of the whole “eternal vigilance” thing means that it’s critical that us ordinary citizens raise hell to actively defend our rights each and every time they are threatened. Our system relies on this.

A big part of the problem is that most people don’t do this. Remember the old adage about the difference between privilege and liberty: privileges are given, liberties are taken.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Yet Another Libertarian 'Free-Citizen' Circle Jerk

Translation back to How the Law is Supposed to Work:

Man previously arrested for smuggling cigarettes, found in another state with lots of cash. Police confiscate cash without probable cause and retain it in violation of forfeiture procedures, and with actual knowledge that he wanted it back.

Demanding due process is not “libertarian uberspeak”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Yet Another Libertarian 'Free-Citizen' Circle Jerk

Unless of course you believe in the theory that police never do any wrong and always uphold the laws. So anyone they arrest must be a criminal solely because the police never make any mistakes.

I really hope people like this are paid for shills instead people that actually believe in this wanting a tyranny nonsense

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Yet Another Libertarian 'Free-Citizen' Circle Jerk

I can’t speak for any of the commenters here, but I do personally know people who sincerely believe that the cops are close to infallible and that an effective police state is a desirable thing (although they’d never phrase it that way). Oddly, these people are also ones who claim to detest “big government”. Go figure.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Yet Another Libertarian 'Free-Citizen' Circle Jerk

The human animal has strong (irrational) instincts to respect authority and presume they know what they’re doing and are looking out for the rest of us.

It’s great in small groups when the chieftain or priest has a similar instinct to look out for the braves and peons.

In larger societies the dynamic doesn’t work so well, but it makes for amazing barn-raising efforts.

Anonymouse says:

What’s maybe most scary is how nobody seems to even care that both traffic stops seem to be transparently BS excuses to search this guy without a warrant. I mean, the “Pro Active Criminal Enforcement Team” doesn’t exactly sound like guys writing routine traffic tickets, does it? And if staties were writing tickets for everyone who changed lanes on an interstate without signaling, well, they’d be busy busy beavers, and certainly wouldn’t have time to call drug dogs to everyone they were writing routine traffic tickets to.

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