A 64-year-old Cleveland man is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection after agents strip-searched him at an airport in October and took more than $58,000 in cash from him without charging him with any crime, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week in Ohio.
Customs agents seized the money through a process known as civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement technique that allows authorities to take cash and property from people who are never convicted or even charged with a crime. The practice is widespread at the federal level. In 2017, federal authorities seized more than $2 billion in assets from people, a net loss similar in size to annual losses from residential burglaries in the United States.
Customs says it suspects that the petitioner in the case, Rustem Kazazi, was involved in smuggling, drug trafficking or money laundering. Kazazi denies those allegations and says that the agency is violating federal law by keeping his money without filing any formal complaint against him.
Kazazi is a retired officer with the Albanian police who relocated with his family to the United States in 2005 after receiving visas through the State Department’s lottery program. They became U.S. citizens in 2010. After several years away, Kazazi planned a trip to Albania last fall to visit relatives, make repairs on a family property and potentially purchase a vacation home.
He took $58,100 in U.S. currency with him, the product of 12 years of savings by Kazazi, his wife, Lejla, and his son Erald, who is finishing a chemical engineering degree at Cleveland State University, according to the lawsuit. The family lives in Parma Heights, a suburb of Cleveland.
In an interview translated by his son, Kazazi said safety concerns prompted him to take cash on his trip, rather than wire the funds to a local bank.
“The crime [in Albania] is much worse than it is here,” he said. “Other people that have made large withdrawals [from Albanian banks] have had people intercept them and take their money. The exchange rates and fees are [also] excessive.”
Albanian contractors often prefer dollars and euros over the local currency, Kazazi said. For those reasons, he said, many expatriates who return to visit Albania bring large amounts of cash with them.