A Houston-area woman is suing the federal government after U.S. Customs detained her at an airport and seized more than $40,000 from her.
On Halloween, Anthonia Nwaorie, a Katy nurse, was boarding her flight from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Nigeria when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers stopped her and seized the $41,377 that she was carrying on her person. Her alleged crime? A currency reporting violation.
The officers disregarded the fact that the cash was lawfully earned and intended to be used in a lawful manner. Nwaorie was taking it to Nigeria to open a medical clinic for women and children.
Nwaorie said that $30,000 of the money was from years of saving for this endeavor and the rest was from family who contributed to cover other expenses. Nwaorie said she knew of currency requirements for entering the country, but not leaving it.
If her crime was leaving the country without declaring that she was carrying more than $10,000, CBP solved that problem by seizing her money and detaining her long enough to miss her flight, so technically no money left the country.
After the confiscation, the CBP sent Nwaorie a seizure notice, but she responded by requesting her case be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a judicial proceeding rather than the CBP’s administrative proceeding. Ultimately, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office declined to pursue the case and the government failed to file a forfeiture complaint within the 90-day allotted window, forcing them to return her cash immediately.
However, according to Nwaorie’s suit, instead of returning the cash promptly as state law requires, the CBP sent her a letter saying the return of her property was contingent upon her signing a Hold Harmless Agreement that would have waved her constitutional and statutory rights.
“The letter stated that if Anthonia did not sign the Hold Harmless Agreement within 30 days from the date of the letter, ‘administrative forfeiture proceedings will be initiated.’” But, if she signed the letter they said she would receive a “refund” check for the entire seized amount within 8 to 10 weeks.
Nwaorie’s suit claims that the practice of requiring claimants to sign away their rights in return for their refund check violates federal law regarding civil asset forfeiture cases. She also said it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment “by imposing unconstitutional conditions.”
The filing continues, “To redress and prevent these systematic abuses, Plaintiff seeks class-wide injunctive and declaratory relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure and a court order.”
Her other claim demands the return of her money, with interest, because the government failed to timely file a forfeiture complaint.
While Nwaorie’s assets were seized in Houston, it was done under color of federal law. This is just another example of the need to address civil asset forfeiture on both levels of government. Out of the small pool of claimants who do want to fight back against unjust seizures, many of them don’t have the resources to engage in a drawn-out legal battle against federal or state authorities.
What makes this situation worse is that the government decided against pursuing the forfeiture, yet still refused to return the seized assets without further conditions. Nwaorie’s case adds to the growing chorus calling for the need to end civil asset forfeiture.