In October 2017, a Texas woman had nearly $41,000 seized from her as she tried to board a plane to Nigeria. More than six months later, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet returned her money.
Anthonia Nwaorie, a nurse, had long dreamed of saving up enough money to open a medical clinic in southern Nigeria. She spent years putting money aside for the clinic. Last year she had finally saved up enough money and bought a flight to Nigeria.
When she attempted to board the flight in Houston, she was stopped by CBP agents awho questioned why she was carrying medical supplies and almost $41,000 in cash. Nwaorie explained what happened next: “The officer started asking me questions. How much money do you have? How long have you been in the United States? … I felt like a criminal that had just run the red light.”
A U.S. citizen since 1994, Nwaorie says she was detained for hours. She had failed to let officials know she was leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash. Her legal team at the Institute for Justice explained this requirement is neither easy to follow nor well publicized.
While Nwaorie was later released, the CBP held onto her money. They are refusing to return it unless she signs a “hold harmless” agreement. If she signs, Nwaorie will be promising not to sue CBP for seizing her property. She will also be agreeing to reimburse any expenses which result from the agreement being enforced.
Law enforcement frequently uses hold harmless in cases of civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is the practice where a person’s property can be seized when there is only a suspicion that the property may have been involved in a crime. In most cases, neither a criminal conviction nor even criminal charges are required for property to be seized.
While local and federal law enforcement argue civil asset forfeiture is necessary to combat organized crime, critics argue it impinges on the constitutional rights of citizens. Also, as the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture are often used by law enforcement to fund their own agencies, it has led to accusations of “policing for profit.” In recent years, several states have taken steps to rein in civil asset forfeiture or to ban it altogether.
The Institute for Justice has filed a class-action lawsuit saying the CBP should return Nwaorie’s property without her signing any agreement that waives her rights. Nwaorie has not been charged with any crime, nor has CBP begun civil asset forfeiture proceedings to permanently seize her cash.
One of the Institute’s lawyers, Dan Alban, argues Nwaorie’s case is just one example among many. “We’re representing hundreds or thousands of people all over the country. … They were entitled to get their property back… and, instead, CBP sent them this letter demanding that they waive all rights to sue… and if they violate the agreement, pay all the attorney’s fees.”
For as long as CBP hold her money, Nwoarie’s plans to open a clinic are on hold. “The government took my money for no good reason,” she said, “and kept me from building a medical clinic that can provide healthcare to vulnerable women and children.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.
Image of George Bush International Airport in Houston by Hequals2henry.