Former shoe shiner recovers nearly $ 30,000 seized by federal agents

When Kermit Warren lost his shoe shine job during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he and his son used his savings of nearly $ 30,000 to purchase a tow truck to support the long-term side business. Mr. Warren’s date, collecting scrap.

But after flying from New Orleans to Ohio to buy the truck, Mr. Warren and his son discovered it wasn’t the right type – it was designed to haul heavy equipment, not heavy equipment. junk – so they went home with $ 28,180 in cash in a pink gift bag.

As Mr. Warren passed through security at the Columbus, Ohio airport, screening officers questioned him about the money and then let him continue.

At the departure gate, just before Mr Warren and his son boarded their flight, three Drug Enforcement Administration officers questioned Mr Warren about the money. He “stammered” that he had traveled to Ohio to buy a truck but could not give the year, make or model, or show an ad or photo of the truck, later said federal prosecutors in court documents.

In a panic, Mr Warren said, he pulled out a badge that had belonged to another son, a former New Orleans police officer, and claimed to be a retired officer. Officers quickly suspected that Mr. Warren was carrying illegal drug money and seized the money. Then they let him get on the plane, him and his son, Leo.

“I never knew in my 58 years as a man in the United States that three DEA agents could take money from a man he worked for, and hadn’t done any kind of crime, or had been arrested for committing any type of wrongdoing, “Warren said in a video posted by his lawyers. “How could they have taken my money like that?” “

The seizure, on November 4, 2020, led to a year-long ordeal that highlighted what Mr Warren’s lawyers call the injustice of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize the ‘money, cars or other personal property of persons suspected of crimes, but Not charged.

The practice is a popular means of increasing income, but has been easily abused and widely criticized for depriving people of their due process rights and for disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color like Mr Warren, which is black.

Flying around the country with any amount of money is legal, but law enforcement officials routinely seize large amounts of money at airports, according to the Institute for Justice, a law firm of public interest that represents Mr. Warren. The institute sued the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration, accusing the agencies of seizing travelers’ money without probable cause.

Dan Alban, an attorney for the institute who represents Mr Warren, said prosecutors already had tools to seize money and other property used in crimes after a person was charged and convicted .

“Civil confiscation, on the other hand, does not even require the laying of criminal charges, let alone a criminal conviction,” Mr. Alban said. “He punishes people for a crime without condemning them for the crime. “

It wasn’t until April that federal prosecutors filed a formal civil forfeiture complaint, saying the money was tied to illegal drug-related activity and the government should keep it.

Prosecutors noted that Mr Warren falsely claimed to be a retired police officer, was traveling one-way, and had no carry-on baggage or a change of clothes. They also later said he was “linked” to a house linked to drug trafficking – a claim refuted by his lawyers.

Mr Alban said he provided prosecutors with text messages showing workers at Buckeye Forklift in Plain City, Ohio, knew Mr Warren was coming to inspect a truck. Mr Alban also gave prosecutors an Uber receipt showing Mr Warren and his son had traveled from a gas station near Buckeye Forklift to the Columbus airport on the morning the money was seized.

He turned over to prosecutors Mr. Warren’s 2016 tax returns and pay stubs, proving he had worked at Central Grocery & Deli in New Orleans (where he mixed olive salad for muffuletta sandwiches), that he had been a longshoreman at the Port of New Orleans and shined shoes at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans until he was fired last year.

The evidence showed “that he had a legitimate purpose for his trip to Ohio and a legitimate source for the money he had earned,” Mr. Alban said.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors agreed to return the full $ 28,180 to Mr. Warren and to dismiss their civil forfeiture complaint “with prejudice”, which means it cannot be filed, Mr. Alban said.

In the deal, prosecutors did not admit any wrongdoing. Prosecutors and the DEA did not respond to emails seeking comment on Saturday.

“It’s amazing,” Warren said in an interview on Saturday. “I thank God for this because without facts you cannot have the truth. I had everything in order. All of my i’s were dotted. All my t’s have been crossed. We haven’t done anything wrong.

Unlike Mr Warren, most people don’t go to court to get their money and seized property back, Mr Alban said, in part because the cost of a lawyer is often more than the value of the property. they are looking for.

The median amount of cash forfeitures by agencies under the Department of Justice from 2015 to 2019 was around $ 12,000, Mr Alban said. At the state level, it was around $ 1,000, he said.

The amounts show that “these are not the big pillars of the drug,” Alban said. “The people most frequently affected are ordinary people, working class people and the poor. “

Mr Warren said the hardest part of getting hold of his money was not being able to pay his bills in the past year, buy gifts for his grandchildren, or treat himself to a steak dinner.

In the deal he made with federal prosecutors, they said they would return his money to him by November 25, Thanksgiving.

About Michael Bill

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