A 58-year-old shoeshine man whose $28,180 was seized by DEA agents at an airport when he was returning to New Orleans from Columbus, Ohio, has had his money returned after almost one year.
According to NBC News, Kermit Warren had traveled to Columbus in November with his life savings of almost $30,000 to purchase a truck. But the deal fell through. And when he was going back to New Orleans, he was stopped by federal agents who questioned him about the cash in his possession.
The reportedly unconvincing answers Warren gave during interrogation led the agents to suspect the cash in his possession was drug money. The agents’ suspicion was also fuelled by the 58-year-old having just a one-way plane ticket and no luggage. Warren was traveling with his son at the time.
And though no charges were brought against Warren, he returned to New Orleans without the cash. Warren also told the news outlet his financial situation subsequently took a turn for the worse as he was out of a job because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he couldn’t even buy Christmas gifts for his grandchildren.
“This last year has truly been a nightmare for me,” Warren said.
The nightmare, however, will eventually be over after Warren recently reached a settlement agreement that will see federal prosecutors return his money to him. And besides getting his money back, the case against him will also be dismissed.
“It gives me a great amount of joy and peace,” Warren said. “What happened to me should never happen to anybody in this world.”
A controversial process, known as civil asset forfeiture, allows U.S. law enforcement officials to seize people’s property if they suspect it was obtained through criminal activity. Authorities can also seize the property without even bringing charges against the owner, NBC News reported.
People who are in favor of civil asset forfeiture argue the law is indispensable as it helps clamp down on drug traffickers who typically transport cash in cars and planes. Critics, however, argue the law unfairly targets innocent people, and people of color usually bear the brunt of it.
Many people whose properties are seized also end up leaving their valuables with the government as challenging a forfeiture is expensive and time-consuming. Warren eventually had his money returned to him after Institute for Justice, which is a non-profit, stepped in to help with legal representation.
“We’re relieved that Kermit is getting his money back, but we’re also very upset that he was left destitute for an entire year for no good reason due to the callous, profit-driven actions of the DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio,” Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said.
“Kermit’s case highlights how the federal government abuses civil forfeiture. It seizes cash on the flimsiest of pretexts – traveling with cash at an airport – and effectively forces people to prove their own innocence to get their money back.”
Prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue Warren’s case after his lawyers presented evidence that proved he did not obtain the cash through criminal activity. This included his financial documents as well as text messages he exchanged with the owner of the truck he wanted to purchase.