When it comes to civil asset forfeiture, you don’t have to be charged with a crime in order for your property to be seized. Depending on the circumstances, your property can slip away when you least expect it.
That’s exactly what happened to Gerardo Serrano as he crossed the U.S. border into Mexico late in 2015, when his truck was seized without any charges being brought against him.
Serrano’s truck was searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Texas’s Eagle Pass border crossing on September 21, 2015, as he was on his way to Piedras Negras, Mexico from his home in Kentucky. During the search, the agents found a small ammunition clip holding 5 bullets, which Serrano says was left in the truck simply as a result of his being absent-minded. The agents promptly arrested Serrano and took him to jail.
Serrano was never charged, and upon his release from jail, he was informed that his truck and ammunition clip were being seized by Customs. The document handed to Serrano said that since he had failed to disclose the clip, his truck was a “conveyance of illegal exportation,” and thus subject to seizure.
Unlike the United States, civilian firearm ownership is illegal in most cases in Mexico, but most of the arrests for this reason happen south of the border. “It’s definitely unusual to search a car that’s leaving the country,” said Robert Everett Johnson of the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm representing Serrano and a longtime opponent of forfeiture, “The normal focus with CBP is on people coming into the country, not people going out of the country.”
“Civil forfeiture allows the government to take your property without giving you any of the protections you get under the Constitution,” Johnson continued, “That’s an open invitation to abuse.”
The federal government has gone back and forth in recent years about what to do about civil asset forfeiture. Under the Obama administration, a number of restrictions made it more difficult for the government to seize property without a criminal conviction, but current Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed those restrictions.
For his part, Serrano wants more than just his truck back. In addition to his truck, the lawsuit filed last month seeks compensatory damages and an injunction against federal agencies prohibiting them from similarly seizing property without prompt hearings in the future. Serrano has made loan and insurance payments on his truck for the past two years without a hearing on the matter, despite paying the $4,000 required to challenge the forfeiture in court.
Customs cashed the $4,000 check on October 30, 2015, making it over 2 years since his truck was seized. Serrano formerly ran for public office in Kentucky on an explicitly pro-Second Amendment platform, and now he feels disillusioned with the government. “How do they get away with this?,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post, “How could this happen?”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney