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Nigerian-American registered nurse sues US Govt over unlawful seizure of $40,000
Anthonia Nwaorie, a 59-year-old Nigerian and registered nurse based in Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, is suing the American government over unlawful seizure of her saving, totalling $41,377.
Nwaorie, an American citizen, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1982, was on her way to Imo State, Nigeria, her native country with $41,377 in cash savings to open a medical clinic for women and children in need of help when without warning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized several years of savings she was carrying.
The incident took place on October 31, 2017 as she was boarding an international flight at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).
“It was like I was a criminal,” she said. “I felt so humiliated, so petrified, too. They were talking among themselves, saying this is how people smuggle money out of the country. ‘This is how they do it.” She told Washington Post
U.S federal law requires travelers to file a report when they are leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash, but this was unknown to Nwaorie.
According to a statement by Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit libertarian public interest law firm assisting Nwaorie to file a case against the government, “Most people have never heard of this requirement because the government does little to publicize it.”
The case was filed on May 4, 2018 at U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
“International travelers arriving in the U.S. receive a form to declare cash and other items before going through Customs. But there is no such notice or automatic process for outgoing travelers.” Rek Lecounte, Communications Project Manager at IJ said in a statement
Six months after the seizure, the U.S. government is now refusing to return the money unless she signs away her civil rights.
This, she and IJ are fighting to stop with a federal class-action lawsuit targeting the abusive practice of civil forfeiture.
“The courts have long established that you have the legal right to travel with any amount of cash, even when you’re traveling internationally,” said Dan Alban, an attorney with IJ, which represents Nwaorie and class members in the lawsuit.
“No American should lose their property without being convicted of a crime, particularly over the technical violation of a law that few people know about.”
The statement explained that the Nwaorie was never charged with any crime, noting that the U.S. attorney’s office declined to pursue civil forfeiture of her money and let the 90-day deadline to file a forfeiture complaint pass without action.
Under federal statute, CBP now must “promptly release the property.” But instead of following the law, CBP officials sent her a letter demanding she sign a “Hold Harmless Release Agreement” waiving her rights—including her right to interest and her First Amendment right to sue CBP over anything related to the seizure—in order to get her money back. If she refuses, the agency threatens to claim she “abandoned” her money and keep it without even giving her a hearing.
“The government took my money for no good reason and kept me from building a medical clinic that can provide healthcare to vulnerable women and children,” said Nwaorie.
“Now they’re demanding that I sign away my rights to get back what has rightly belonged to me all along. I am an American, and I will not surrender my rights.”
Anthonia and IJ are suing to stop CBP from bullying people like her into signing away their constitutional rights.
“This class action will represent Anthonia and other innocent victims of CBP’s unlawful and unconstitutional requirement that people sign away their rights to get back property the agency is legally required to return. No one should be forced to surrender their constitutional rights to get back property to which they are legally entitled.
“This case shows how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive,” IJ attorney, Anya Bidwell said.
“Anthonia was never charged with a crime, and the government decided not to forfeit her money. But all these months later, she’s still suffering from a seizure the government acknowledges should never have happened. Even when the civil forfeiture process supposedly ‘works’ as designed, it has disastrous effects on innocent people.”
IJ is asking the federal court to put an end to CBP’s behavior and declare it unlawful and unconstitutional, to void any “Hold Harmless” agreements signed by class members, and to order CBP to return seized property to any class members—including Anthonia—whose property was not returned because they did not sign an agreement surrendering their constitutional rights.