In 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized $58,000 from an Ohio man. They have not returned the money nor have they charged him with a crime.
Rustem Kazazi and his family are originally from Albania in southern Europe, where Rustem worked as a police officer. In 2005, the Kazazis moved to the U.S. when they were awarded visas through the State Department lottery program. They settled in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2010, the family became naturalized U.S. citizens.
On October 24 last year, Rustem went to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport with his wife, Lejla, and son, Erald. They were planning to visit Albania to see family, make repairs on their old residence as well as buy a vacation home.
Rustem packed $58,100 in cash in his carry-on. Since bank-related crime in Albania is rife and contractors there also prefer to be paid in dollars rather than the local currency, Rustem decided it was safer to take the money in hard currency himself. The money was wrapped in three bundles together with documentation on his family’s property in Albania and receipts showing the money had recently been withdrawn from the bank.
The money was discovered during a security check. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials led Rustem to a room where they carried out multiple searches on both Rustem himself and his possessions.
“They asked me some questions which I could not understand as they spoke too quickly,” explained Rustem. “I asked them for an interpreter and asked to call my family, but they denied my request.”
Despite the searches revealing no evidence of drugs or any other illegal activity, CBP took Rustem’s money. The receipt they handed him did not list the amount of cash they took. Rustem became worried the CBP was attempting to keep his money for themselves.
After waiting more than a month, Rustem finally received a notice from CBP that his money had indeed been seized. The note stated, “Enforcement activity indicates that the currency was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.” Rustem also noted CBP claimed to have taken $57,330 in cash. This was $770 less than the amount Rustem had with him at the airport.
Wesley Hottot of the Institute for Justice explained it was common for government receipts of seized cash to be lower than the amount the defendant had with him or her at the time. Sometimes it is even thousands of dollars short, he said.
In a statement, CBP said international travelers are required to declare sums greater than $10,000 in cash before leaving the country. Failure to do so “can result in fines and could result in civil and/or criminal penalties.”
Rustem was aware of this requirement and intended to declare the money before leaving the country. The first leg of his flight to Albania went from Cleveland to Newark, New Jersey. As Newark was his customs point of departure, it is here that Rustem was supposed to declare the cash, not in Cleveland.
CBP gave Rustem several options. For example, he could abandon the money, or he could agree to take a portion of his money back if he let CBP keep the rest. Rustem and his family have decided to challenge the seizure in court.
According to federal forfeiture procedures, any civil asset forfeiture case had to be initiated within 90 days of Rustem’s reply to the CBP’s seizure notice. If no case is initiated, CBP is required to return the money to Rustem promptly. The deadline passed almost two months ago. CBP has neither filed a forfeiture case nor has it returned Rustem’s money.
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