A 64-Year-Old Put His Life Savings in His Carry-On. U.S. Customs Took it Without Charging Him With a Crime

A 64-year-old Cleveland man is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection after agents strip-searched him at an airport in October and took more than $58,000 in cash from him without charging him with any crime, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week in Ohio.

Customs agents seized the money through a process known as civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement technique that allows authorities to take cash and property from people who are never convicted or even charged with a crime. The practice is widespread at the federal level. In 2017, federal authorities seized more than $2 billion in assets from people, a net loss similar in size to annual losses from residential burglaries in the United States.

Customs says it suspects that the petitioner in the case, Rustem Kazazi, was involved in smuggling, drug trafficking or money laundering. Kazazi denies those allegations and says that the agency is violating federal law by keeping his money without filing any formal complaint against him.

Kazazi is a retired officer with the Albanian police who relocated with his family to the United States in 2005 after receiving visas through the State Department’s lottery program. They became U.S. citizens in 2010. After several years away, Kazazi planned a trip to Albania last fall to visit relatives, make repairs on a family property and potentially purchase a vacation home.

He took $58,100 in U.S. currency with him, the product of 12 years of savings by Kazazi, his wife, Lejla, and his son Erald, who is finishing a chemical engineering degree at Cleveland State University, according to the lawsuit. The family lives in Parma Heights, a suburb of Cleveland.

In an interview translated by his son, Kazazi said safety concerns prompted him to take cash on his trip, rather than wire the funds to a local bank.

“The crime [in Albania] is much worse than it is here,” he said. “Other people that have made large withdrawals [from Albanian banks] have had people intercept them and take their money. The exchange rates and fees are [also] excessive.”

Albanian contractors often prefer dollars and euros over the local currency, Kazazi said. For those reasons, he said, many expatriates who return to visit Albania bring large amounts of cash with them.

On Oct. 24, Kazazi arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to begin the first leg of his journey, which would take him to Newark to connect with an international flight. He carried the cash in three counted and labeled bundles in his carry-on bag, he said, along with receipts from recent bank withdrawals and documentation pertaining to his family’s property in Tirana, the Albanian capital.

According to a translated declaration that Kazazi provided to the court as part of the lawsuit, Transportation Security Administration employees discovered the cash in his bag during a routine security check and alerted Customs and Border Protection.

“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.”

Kazazi characterized the search as a “strip search” in an interview translated by his son. “I felt my rights violated,” he said.

The searches turned up nothing — no drugs, no contraband, no evidence of any illegal activity, according to the lawsuit. But the agents took Kazazi’s money. Even more alarming to Kazazi was that the receipt the agents handed to him did not list the dollar value of his cash.

“I began to worry that they were trying to steal the money for themselves,” he said in his court declaration.

A portion of the receipt for seized property given to Rustem Kazazi on Oct. 24. (Kazazi family)
After being released, Kazazi called his wife and explained what had happened. None of it made sense to either of them, but Lejla Kazazi told her husband that it had to be some sort of misunderstanding and that he should continue on his trip and let her and Erald sort it out at home.

Seven months later, Customs still has the money.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/05/31/a-64-year-old-put-his-life-savings-in-his-carry-on-u-s-customs-took-it-without-charging-him-with-a-crime/?utm_term=.637f4b699b34