The former shoe cleaner won nearly $ 30,000 seized by federal agents

When Kermit Warren lost his job in a shoe shine during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he and his son took his life savings of nearly $ 30,000 to buy a tow truck to support Mr. Warren’s long-standing scrap metal collection business.

But after flying from New Orleans to Ohio to buy a truck, Mr. Warren and his son found it the wrong kind – it was designed to tow heavy equipment, not scrap metal – so they returned home with $ 28,180. cash in pink. gift bag.

Who is Mr. Warren was walking through security at Columbus Airport in Ohio, inspectors asked him about the money and then let him continue.

At the exit, just before Mr. Warren and his son boarded the flight, three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration asked Mr. Warren about the cash. He “stuttered” that he flew to Ohio to buy a truck, but was unable to state the year, make or model, or show an ad or picture of the truck, federal prosecutors later said in court documents.

Mr. Warren said in a panic that he pulled out a badge that belonged to his second son, a former New Orleans police officer, and claimed to be a retired officer. Agents soon suspected that Mr. Warren transferred illegal drugs, and seized cash. He and his son Leo were then allowed to board the plane.

“In all my 58 years as a man in the United States, I never knew that three DEA agents could take a man’s money for which he worked and that he did not commit any crime or be arrested for any crime. , ”Said Mr. Warren video tape released by his lawyers. “How could they take my money?”

The confiscation on November 4, 2020, led to a one-year trial that highlighted what Mr. Warren is called an injustice civil seizure, which allows law enforcement to seize cash, cars or other personal property of people who are suspected of crimes but are not charged.

The practice is a popular way to raise income, but it has been easily misused and widely criticized for depriving people of the right to due process and disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color like Mr. Warren, who is black.

Flying home with any amount of cash is legal, but law enforcement officials at airports regularly seize large amounts of cash. Institute of Justice, a public interest law firm representing Mr. Warrena. The institute has sued the DEA and the Traffic Safety Administration, which accuses the agencies of seizing passengers’ money for no apparent reason.

Dan Alban, an institute attorney representing Mr. Warren, said prosecutors already have the tools to seize cash and other property used in crimes after a person is charged and convicted.

“Civil deprivation, by contrast, does not even require a criminal complaint, let alone a criminal conviction,” Mr. Alban. “Punishing people for a crime without convicting them of that crime.”

It was not until April that federal prosecutors filed a notice civil confiscation, who claims that the money was linked to illegal drug activity and that the government should have kept it.

Prosecutors found that Mr. Warren falsely claimed to be a retired police officer, to have flown a one-way ticket, and to have had no hand luggage or change of clothes. He was later also said to have been “connected” to a house linked to drug trafficking – an allegation refuted by his lawyers.

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

He gave the prosecution tax returns to Mr. Warren and 2016 pay slips proving he worked at Central Grocery & Deli in New Orleans (where he mixed olive salad for muffulet sandwiches) that he was in New Port. Orleans and that he shone shoes at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans until he was fired last year.

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

On Thursday, federal prosecutors agreed to return all $ 28,180 to Mr. Warren and dismiss their appeal of the civil seizure “with prejudice,” meaning it cannot be re-filed, Mr Alban said.

The prosecutors did not admit any violation in the agreement. Prosecutors and the DEA did not respond to emails on Saturday asking for comment.

“It’s amazing,” Warren said in an interview Saturday. “I thank God for that, because without facts you can’t have the truth. I had everything arranged. All my i’s were spotted. All my t’s were crossed. We didn’t do anything wrong. “

Unlike Mr Warren, most people do not go to court to claim confiscated money and property, Mr Alban said, in part because a lawyer’s costs are often higher than the value of the property sought.

Alban said the average amount of cash withdrawals by agencies under the Department of Justice from 2015 to 2019 was about $ 12,000. At the state level, it was about $ 1,000, he said.

The figures show that “these are not big drug kings,” Mr. Alban. “The most commonly affected are ordinary people, working class people and the poor.”

Mr Warren said the hardest part of the money seizure was that he had been unable to pay bills, buy gifts for his grandchildren or afford dinner with steaks in the past year.

In an agreement he reached with federal prosecutors, they wrote that the money would be returned to him by Nov. 25, Thanksgiving.

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