It is generally unlawful for the government to confiscate personal property except through a fair hearing. Yet migrants and U.S. citizens alike regularly report that Customs and Border Protection officers have confiscated their property – from their money and identification cards to their phones and automobiles – without a meaningful opportunity to seek return of that property. This is not only unfair, it is often dangerous for migrants who are deported after being stripped of their property and must then navigate the streets of Mexico without money, identification, or other belongings.
On September 13, 2017, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts, brought suit against Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, challenging those agencies’ practices of seizing travelers’ electronic devices without a warrant or individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. The organizations filed on behalf of 10 U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident who had smartphones and other electronic devices seized when they arrived at the U.S. border. Many of the plaintiffs had their devices confiscated for extended periods of times. The plaintiffs seek the return of their devices, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the government to seek a warrant or have probable cause that a crime was committed prior to seizing a travelers’ cellphone. On December 15, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.
This lawsuit challenges U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) unlawful seizure of Plaintiffs’ life savings. On October 24, 2017, while one of the Plaintiffs, Rustem Kazazi, a U.S. citizen, was in route to Albania, CBP seized the $58,100 that he was carrying to purchase a retirement home in Albania and assist family members in need. CBP neither arrested nor charged Mr. Kazazi or his family members with any crime. Later, CBP sought to justify the seizure by alleging that the money was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation—an unfounded allegation that CBP did not record when it confiscated the money nor one that CBP is willing to defend in court.
On September 6, 2017, the Institute for Justice brought a class action suit against Customs and Border Protection over the agency’s practice of engaging in civil forfeiture of vehicles at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border. The plaintiff, Gerardo Serrano, was detained in 2015 when crossing into Mexico at the Eagle Pass, Texas port of entry. After CBP officers found a small amount of pistol ammunition in his truck, they seized the vehicle. CBP held his truck for over two years without ever filing a civil forfeiture action in court against him, despite requiring him to post thousands of dollars for a bond purportedly to allow him to challenge the seizure. Because the agency never filed a forfeiture action, Mr. Serrano was given no opportunity to have his day in court and challenge CBP’s seizure.
In June 2016, the ACLU of Arizona filed a complaint on behalf of ten individuals with U.S. Department of Homeland Security oversight agencies and the Department of Justice demanding investigations into abuses arising from Border Patrol interior operations. As a result of some of these incidents, and although the individuals implicated were not charged with any crime or immigration violation, their property was confiscated and some had to pay thousands of dollars to recover a vehicle.
On April 6, 2016, the New Mexico ACLU Center for Border Rights, along with the Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional and other partners, filed a complaint with DHS which documented 26 cases in which belongings—including important identity documents, money, and irreplaceable personal items—were confiscated by Border Patrol agents from individuals they apprehended and never returned at the time that the individuals were deported. The reported cases highlight the devastating consequences that can flow from the loss of critical documents and money. These 26 incidents are illustrative of the serious systemic problems with respect to CBP’s policies on return of belongings, including the ability for individual agent’s to abuse the system.
Adijat Edwards arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from Nigeria. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents detained her upon arrival. The officers confiscated $4,000 worth of her jewelry and, days later, forced her to withdraw $1,200 in cash using her bank card. The officers told Ms. Edwards that the money was necessary to pay for her return flight to Nigeria as part of expedited removal proceedings.
On December 28, 2011, Lucy Rogers was driving toward the U.S./Canada border with two farmworkers of apparent Latino descent when a Border Patrol agent pulled her over without any reasonable suspicion and asked her and her passengers whether they were U.S. citizens. Ms. Rogers replied that she was a U.S. citizen, but because the two farmworkers traveling with her were unable to immediately provide proof of their immigration status, Ms. Rogers was arrested and searched, under the suspicion that she was trafficking undocumented immigrants in an attempt to escape inspection upon entry into the U.S. The BP agents insisted that Ms. Rogers provide them with the GPS device that she kept in her car. Ms. Rogers did not receive it back for more than seven months.