Houston Nurse Forced to Sue Customs and Border Protection for Seizing $41,000 Without Criminal Charges

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A nurse from Katy is suing Customs and Border Protection after the agency took the cash from her last October and never charged her with a crime. Advocates say the case shows just how abusive the practice of civil asset forfeiture can be.

For nearly a decade, Anthonia Nwaorie dreamed of starting a medical clinic in her hometown in Southern Nigeria.

Last October, the 59-year-old nurse was boarding a plane in Houston with medical equipment, supplies, and about $41,000 in cash — which had taken her years to save — when Customs and Border Protection officials stopped her.

“The officer started asking me questions: How much money do you have? How long have you been in the United States?” she remembered. “I felt like a criminal that had just run the red light.”

Nwaorie said she was detained for hours. She missed her flight to Nigeria and the customs officers seized all her money. Lawyers at the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based public interest law firm, say her case demonstrates just how abusive the practice of civil forfeiture — which allows the government to take property that is believed to be tied to a crime — can be.

CBP took the money because Nwaorie, a U.S. citizen since 1994 who lives in Katy, had not declared that she was taking more than $10,000 out of the country — a technical requirement that her lawyers say is not well-publicized or easy to comply with.

But six months after her money was taken, Nwaorie has not been charged with a crime, and federal prosecutors decided not to bother with trying to seize her property through the courts. Yet Customs and Border Protection is still refusing to return the money unless she signs a so-called “hold harmless” agreement, promising never to sue the agency over the incident and agreeing to reimburse the government for “costs incurred in the enforcement of any part of this agreement,” the document says.

On Thursday, the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency on Nwaorie’s behalf, demanding that CBP return her money without forcing her to sign any written agreement. They’re also asking a federal court in Houston to void all such agreements that might have been signed by others trying to get seized property back.

“We’re representing hundreds or thousands of people all over the country who have had this sort of thing happen to them,” said Dan Alban, one of the attorneys litigating the case. “They were entitled to get their property back … and instead, CBP sent them this letter demanding that they waive all rights to sue and hold [the government] harmless, and if they violate the agreement, pay all the attorney’s fees. And that’s just egregious.”

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Carlos Diaz declined to comment “due to pending litigation.”

The lawsuit comes at a time when more voices across the political spectrum are speaking out against civil forfeiture, especially in Texas. Law enforcement officials say the ability to seize property before charging someone with a crime is crucial for carrying out investigations; critics say it strips people of basic constitutional rights and that it helps police departments and prosecutors pad their budgets.