CBP Agrees To Hand Back Almost All Of The $58,000 It Stole From A 64-Year-Old Man At A Cleveland Airport

from the to-the-feds,-any-amount-of-cash-is-a-suspicious-amount-of-cash dept

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.

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Comments on “CBP Agrees To Hand Back Almost All Of The $58,000 It Stole From A 64-Year-Old Man At A Cleveland Airport”

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54 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Agreed.

But from their point of view that legal activity was not done on stage, under bright lights, in front of witnesses, on camera, after having asked permission from 1) your mother 2) your clergyperson 3) the FBI 4) other unnamed applicable authoritarians who will only become apparent at the time of seizure and then immediately disappear.

Now, if we all played by these rules…

/s

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’ve never withdrawn more than $2000 from my checking account for a single transaction — and those large withdrawals were to buy computers, as I don’t own a car.

Most of my withdrawals are much smaller — $100 here for food, $60 there for a new Xbox game, $20 in another place to buy a gift for my niece, $5 for lunch. According to the CBP standards for what structuring is, I cannot be anything but a criminal for my constant, all my life money laundering activity.

If legal activity is probable cause for illegal activity, then there is no such thing as a probable cause requirement and the fourth amendment has been abolished.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Fourth Amendment, abolished

It’s commonplace for judges to give exceptions to inadmissibility on account of lawful suspicious behavior, especially if the conviction would be profitable, or if a crime was distasteful enough (id est if the judge dislikes the defendant enough to proverbially throw away the key.)

We’ve long established that the Forth Amendment is not well established by our legal institutions, for the purpose of filling our prisons with warm bodies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Assume the agents stole the rest

Since it was an illegal seizure of the cash in the first place with no documentation of what was being stolen, we have to assume the CBP agent stole the difference. I would take the amount out of their next paycheck since they clearly have no problem with seizures of money.

Daydream says:

It is illegal to take more than $10,000 in funds out of the country without reporting it.

It’s also illegal to steal $58,000 from someone.

It seems to me that, given the many legalities that they’ve failed to follow, this attempt at ‘asset forfeiture’ by the CBP was nothing more than theft committed while wearing a uniform.

…You know, I bet career robbers in America do just that; get a fake police uniform, rob a house blind under the pretence of ‘asset forfeiture’, rely on the homeowners going ‘well, that’s the police for you’.

It helps that said ‘police’ wear face-concealing masks for raids; once they finally figure out that whoever raided the house wasn’t a real officer, the robber is long gone.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…You know, I bet career robbers in America do just that; get a fake police uniform, rob a house blind under the pretence of ‘asset forfeiture’, rely on the homeowners going ‘well, that’s the police for you’.

The stupid ones perhaps, the ‘smart’ ones get a real uniform and a real badge, and then just rob whoever they feel like, safe in the knowledge that the deck is well stacked against their victim and that even if they get caught the worst they’ll suffer is a sternly wagged finger and a warning not to be so blatant next time.

Remember: ‘Dumb criminals go to jail, smart criminals go into law enforcement and/or politics.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s not hard to get a real uniform and badge, either. In my city, you can find them at Army Surplus stores. They sell them with the understanding people will use them as costumes for filmmaking and halloween, but I’m sure people find all kinds of creative and lucrative uses for them.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You don’t even need to go to a surplus store. Just shop at — or rob — a uniform vendor. They have all the uniforms for all the official agencies in the region, as well as all of the patches. Many even have blank badges and offer an engraving service to apply the badge number.

And they don’t have any more security than any other retail clothing store.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

When privateering was halted officially...

…the age of pirates really got going, since there was no way all those profitable crews were going to go back to working for a pittance.

Similarly when the holy inquisition figured out they could seize assets and territory following successful confessions, the torture factor went up and stayed up, even when it was criminalized by the Holy See. Similarly seizures didn’t cease until well after they were halted by a bull from the Pope.

We’ll only see the end of asset forfeiture when we pry it from the cold dead hands of our law enforcement institutions.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: When privateering was halted officially...

["In the Age of Sail, a letter of marque and reprisal, or, simply a letter of marque (in France, a lettre de marque or sometimes a lettre de course) was a government license that authorized a person, known as a privateer or corsair, to attack and capture enemy vessels. Once captured, the privateer could then bring the case of that prize before their own admiralty court for condemnation and transfer of ownership to the privateer. A letter of marque and reprisal would include permission to cross an international border to effect a reprisal (take some action against an attack or injury) and was authorized by an issuing jurisdiction to conduct reprisal operations outside its borders.]"(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_of_marque)

These guys see themselves as privateers. They forget two things. The first is the sea. The second is they are not private. Their imaginations, however, are not surpassed by Hollywood, though many of us wish it was so, then Hollywood would produce better, and these guys would fall down more.

ryuugami says:

Re: Re: Re:3 When privateering was halted officially...

They aren’t; it could’ve been any other character and it would break in the same way. In this case, you put the closing quote in the wrong place, i.e., you got a stray quote in the middle of your markdown. However, the misplaced character being a quote mark is immaterial.

Wrong: [text]”(link)
Wrong: [text]+(link)
Wrong: [text]a(link)
Wrong: [text]stray(link)

Correct: text

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: When privateering was halted officially...

It got the quote part, but not link part.

Luckily.

There’s no definite rule for how long the anchor text should be in a hyperlink — but what you attempted was just toooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: When privateering was halted officially...

We’ll only see the end of asset forfeiture when we pry it from the cold dead hands of our law enforcement institutions.

Nah, you could gut the practice with a few simple changes, they’re just changes that would be fought tooth and nail by those currently benefiting from the practice of robbery-at-badgepoint.

1) Eliminate the profit angle. The one making the seizure gets none of the proceeds, no matter how little or how much it is. Instead, any funds goes straight into the budget of the local public defense lawyers, in addition to their usual budget.

2) Require a conviction of the person. No more ‘the property is guilty unless the former owner can prove it’s innocence’, if they don’t have enough to convict the owner and tie the property in question to a crime, then they don’t get to keep it.

3) Treat violations of either of the above as serious crimes, with harsh punishments handed out to the individuals guilty rather than their agency.

The first two if implemented would almost certainly decimate the practice, the third would just be icing on the cake.

norahc (profile) says:

Re: Re: When privateering was halted officially...

“1) Eliminate the profit angle. The one making the seizure gets none of the proceeds, no matter how little or how much it is. Instead, any funds goes straight into the budget of the local public defense lawyers, in addition to their usual budget.”

Except the ink wouldn’t even be dry on that proposal before someone decided that the only budget public defense should get is from seized funds.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: When privateering was halted officially...

Except the ink wouldn’t even be dry on that proposal before someone decided that the only budget public defense should get is from seized funds.

I’ve no doubt they would try that, yes, so you’d have to have an independent body set out a ‘baseline’ budget based upon previous years(which would still be stupidly low to be sure, but it would at least set a minimum), however the main goal is to remove the incentive for police and other agencies to steal anything they can get their hands on by making it so it doesn’t matter how sticky their fingers are, they still get nothing from it.

Remove the profit angle and I strongly suspect that they’d lose interest rather quick. Make it so that the more they grab the better defended those they accuse are and they’d go out of their way to not grab stuff.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The problem with "supplying the defense"

Sending money to the defense still creates an incentive which can turn perverse. I’m reminded of the Scotland Yard policy to track clean-up rates in the 80s which is to say the precincts were rewarded for reduced rates of arrests, which led to Bobbies letting more people go with an unofficial warning. (That actually sounds pretty swell, compared to what we have in the States today.)

If we’re particularly looking to extinct the practice of asset forfeiture entirely (The Fourth Amendment implies it’s a bad thing generally) then yeah, successfully forfeited assets should go towards a disincentive.

I think my beef with the idea is that the DoJ’s perception of public defense as an adversarial institution belies what is wrong with the system at large. To borrow a thought from John Oliver recently, the DoJ’s interest should be investigation not conviction. And since its the latter, we have a system lousy with under-investigated wrongful convictions.

David says:

This is not what victory looks like

This is like a knight claiming victory over a dragon because the dragon was too lazy to swallow and fell asleep.

Taking the money out of the country was still illegal and declaring it basically impossible. The CBP would have been fully in their right confiscating and keeping the money if they only had bothered processing it.

Just because they were too lazy to even go through the motions of their ridiculous pretense of legality this time does not mean the dragon has been conquered.

Vincent Clement (profile) says:

Re: This is not what victory looks like

Last I looked, flying from Cleveland to Newark is not an international flight. So how could taking money on a domestic flight be considered illegal?

It’s quite telling that instead of bringing paperwork so he could declare the money, that CBP chose to seize the money and humiliate the man. Because you know, everyone is a fucking criminal in the USA.

David says:

Re: Re: This is not what victory looks like

Well, he didn’t speak fluent English. Probably was white enough, though. So it would be hard to recognize his children as fair game: they are likely to speak the language better than he does. You really cannot wait for the next generation to rob: they might be indistinguishable from senators.

David says:

How does this add up?

We start with $58100. Someone pockets $100 to make this a round number. 1.5% of a finder’s fee on the remaining $58000 which is $870 gets split between two people. The deal blows up and they decide each party is going to chip in one of his $100 bills for his failure in doing the paperwork, so we are back at $770 which are missing and the bloody foreigner will likely be happy to get the rest back anyway.

Bob says:

Albanian with legal US Citizenship?

Guys, this reads wrong: He is a US Citizen of Albanian citizenship. With the exception of running for President, I don’t think there is a difference between when someone is naturalized and it should be irrelevant. What if Bob Johnson, a fourth generation Iowan was on his way to visit Albania with money to fix up a mission he sponsors there? They would’ve taken it too.

NeghVar (profile) says:

retroactive ban

If states pass a law to outright ban civil asset forfeiture, I hope they include a retroactive clause to return what was stolen. Cash and property.

Local Sheriff: But that will bankrupt our PD and maybe even our city.
Governor signing bill: Well you should have thought about that before committing these immoral, unethical acts of legalized theft.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Constitution as an impediment

You’re assuming our government and law enforcement agencies view the Constitution as something other than an impediment to doing whatever the hell they want to do.

During the colonial age regulations and rules of engagement from the old world were interpreted as such by the agents of state that were sent to police the colonies. Including the Red Coats (The British Infantry) that were garrisoning the English colonies at the time.

David says:

Re: Re: Legal?

You’re assuming our government and law enforcement agencies view the Constitution as something other than an impediment to doing whatever the hell they want to do.

Which is exactly what the Bill of Rights has been written for. The problem is that they are increasingly viewing the Constitution not as an impediment to doing whatever the hell they want to do.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Legal?

The problem is that they are increasingly viewing the Constitution not as an impediment to doing whatever the hell they want to do.

I’d take that farther and say that they do still consider it an impediment, they just are increasingly considering it an optional one where staying withing the bounds it sets are up to their discretion, and unfortunately more than zero courts are agreeing with them.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 'It's more of a guideline than a rule really...'

‘It would be nice if you stayed within these limits, but if you don’t feel like it that’s fine’ versus ‘These are the limits, you will stay within them or you will be punished’.

‘Optional impediment’ in the sense of ‘If we actually had to follow this it would be a pain and get in the way of what we are/want to do, but since we don’t, it’s merely an inconvenience at most.’

Of course that interpretation only applies to their actions with regards to the constitution and/or law, when it comes to the public’s activity then there’s nothing ‘optional’ about it.

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