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A 64-year-old put his life savings in his carry-on. U.S. Customs took it without charging him with a crime.

Rustem Kazazi, left, sits at home with wife, Lejla, and son Erald in Parma Heights, Ohio. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Institute for Justice

A 64-year-old Cleveland, Ohio, 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 strongly 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 2011. After more than a decade 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, Rustem 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.

On Oct. 24, Kazazi arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to begin the first leg of his journey, which would take him to Newark to connect with an international flight. He carried the cash in three counted and labeled bundles in his carry-on bag, he said, along with receipts from recent bank withdrawals and documentation pertaining to his family's property in Tirana, the Albanian capital.

According to a translated declaration that Kazazi provided to the court as part of the lawsuit, TSA employees discovered the cash in his bag during a routine security check and alerted Customs and Border Protection.

"They asked me some questions, which I could not understand as they spoke too quickly," according to Kazazi's declaration. "I asked them for an interpreter and asked to call my family, but they denied my request."

The CBP agents led Kazazi to a small windowless room and conducted multiple searches of him and his belongings, he said. According to Kazazi's declaration, the agents asked him to remove all of his clothing and gave him a blanket to cover the lower portion of his body. Kazazi said that a man wearing rubber gloves then "started searching different areas of my body."

Kazazi characterized the search as a "strip search" in an interview translated by his son. "I felt my rights violated," he said.

The searches turned up nothing - no drugs, no contraband, no evidence of any illegal activity, according to the lawsuit. But the agents took Kazazi's money. Even more alarming to Kazazi was that the receipt the agents handed to him did not list the dollar value of his cash.

"I began to worry that they were trying to steal the money for themselves," he said in his court declaration.

After being released, Kazazi called his wife and explained what had happened. None of it made sense to either of them, but Lejla Kazazi told her husband that it had to be some sort of misunderstanding and that he should continue on his trip and let her and Erald sort it out at home.

Seven months later, Customs still has the money.

The Kazazis have been caught up in a broader struggle over civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement practice that allows police to seize and permanently keep cash and other property on the suspicion of wrongdoing. Defenders of the practice, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, say it's a valuable tool for fighting drug cartels and other criminal enterprises in cases where a criminal conviction is difficult to obtain. But media outlets such as The Washington Post and civil liberties groups such as the ACLU have found that the process is ripe for abuse.

"The government can just take everything from you," said Wesley Hottot, the Kazazi family's lawyer. Hottot is with the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm working to overturn civil forfeiture. People wishing to challenge a civil forfeiture must essentially demonstrate their innocence in court, Hottot said, turning the dictum of "innocent until proven guilty" on its head.

"You have to affirmatively show you're not a criminal to get your own money back," Hottot said. "You have to effectively prove a negative."

Federal authorities haul in billions in cash and property from forfeiture every year, a tally that doesn't include additional billions seized in state and local forfeiture actions.

The Kazazi family didn't hear anything about their cash or why it was taken until more than a month after it was seized, when Customs finally sent a seizure notice to their home.

"This is to notify you that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) seized the property described below at Cleveland, OH on October 24, 2017: $57,330 in U.S. Currency," the notice states. "Enforcement activity indicates that the currency was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation."

The first thing the Kazazis noticed was that the dollar amount listed was $770 less than the amount that Kazazi said he took with him. The family said that the cash was all in $100 bills, making it impossible for it to add up to $57,330.

Hottot said these types of "errors" are common in forfeiture cases, and that it's "always in the same direction": government receipts coming up a few hundred or a few thousand dollars short of what defendants say they had.

The Kazazis said they were also flabbergasted by the allegation of "smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering." There was no indication of how the officers arrived at that conclusion. "This was the most offensive thing I've ever seen," Erald Kazazi said. "They provide no evidence. They list three different things without even saying which one it is."

In a statement, a CBP spokesman said that "pursuant to an administrative search of Mr. Kazazi and his bags, TSA agents discovered artfully concealed U.S. currency. Mr. Kazazi provided inconsistent statements regarding the currency, had no verifiable source of income and possessed evidence of structuring activity," that is, making cash withdrawals of less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.

Hottot denies that Rustem Kazazi was trying to conceal the cash - he had wrapped it in paper, labeled it and sent it through the scanner in his carry-on bag. The "inconsistent statements" were a result of Kazazi's poor English language comprehension, Hottot said.

Hottot also noted that the structuring allegation was not included in the seizure notice. "They've never mentioned structuring before," he said. "I think what were really seeing here is some creative Monday morning quarterbacking by CBP, trying to justify the unjustified."

The CBP spokesman also noted that there are disclosure requirements for traveling internationally with sums of cash greater than $10,000. "Failure to declare monetary instruments in amounts more than $10,000 can result in fines or forfeiture and could result in civil and or criminal penalties," he said.

Hottot said Kazazi was well aware of those requirements and planned file his disclosure form during his four-hour layover in Newark. The form instructs travelers to file the paperwork "at the time of departure from the United States with the Customs officer in charge at any Customs port of entry or departure."

"If he's gonna follow the law on this he's gonna have to do it in Newark on the way out of the country," Hottot said.

The CBP seizure notice gave the Kazazis a number of options for proceeding with the case. They could abandon the cash completely, or they could make an "offer in compromise" - letting CBP keep a certain percentage of the seized cash if they returned the rest. There were also options for challenging the seizure administratively through internal CBP channels or letting the case proceed in federal court. The Kazazis opted for federal court.

Erald Kazazi said they are pursuing a court case because they don't trust the internal CBP process. "They were the ones that seized our money," he said. "We wanted another party like the attorney's office to deal with this case. Based on my father's experience it didn't seem like CBP really wanted to help us out."

Under federal forfeiture law, the government was required to initiate a forfeiture case within 90 days after the Kazazis responded to the seizure notice. If they failed to initiate a forfeiture case within that window, they would be required to promptly return the money to the claimants.

That deadline passed over a month ago, on April 17. CBP has not filed a forfeiture complaint; nor has it returned the money. Erald Kazazi said he has called CBP several times was told that the case was now with the U.S. attorney's office in Ohio and that they had no additional information on it. So this week the Kazazis filed their own lawsuit, demanding the immediate return of their property.

The U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Ohio declined to comment on the record.

Erald Kazazi said the ordeal has affected his father's health and turned their lives upside-down. But, he said, his father's high opinion of the United States hasn't changed.

"He's not going to let the actions of some employees that made a mistake in their duties change his opinion of the country," he said.

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