HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas nurse traveling to Nigeria claims in a class action that U.S. customs agents wrongly seized over $41,000 in cash from her that was meant to start a clinic for women and children in the West African nation, and have refused to return it unless she signs a waiver.
Anthonia Nwaorie sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, in Houston federal court on Thursday, alleging violations of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, or CAFRA, and due process violations under the Fifth Amendment.
Nwaorie, a resident of Katy, Texas, was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States in 1982. She obtained her nursing license in 1983 and became a U.S. citizen in 1994.
She claims that she was about to board a flight at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Nigeria on Oct. 31, 2017, when CBP officers detained her and seized $41,377 in cash from her. The officers alleged she had violated currency reporting requirements.
“Anthonia had entered the United States through U.S. Customs many times and was aware of the currency reporting requirement when entering the United States, but was unaware of the requirement to report currency of more than $10,000 when departing the United States,” the lawsuit states. (Emphasis in original.)
Additionally, Nwaorie says that even if she had known about the reporting requirement, complying with it would have been “quite onerous.” CBP’s office at George Bush Intercontinental Airport is not located on airport property and is almost 7 miles from the terminal from which her flight departed, according to the complaint.
The nurse claims that being stopped and detained by CBP agents caused her to miss her flight, and United Airlines refused to refund her money for the ticket. She had to use a credit card to buy a new ticket to Nigeria on Nov. 9.
Nwaorie had planned to use over $30,000 of the seized money to start a medical clinic for women and children in Nigeria, she says. The rest of the money was to be given to family in Nigeria to pay for medical costs, retirement expenses and home repairs.
The CBP sent Nwaorie a CAFRA seizure notice in November 2017, and she in turn requested that CBP refer her case to the U.S. attorney’s office for a judicial forfeiture proceeding rather than an administrative proceeding.
Because the government did not file a forfeiture complaint within the 90-day period, CAFRA automatically required CBP to promptly release the seized property, according to the lawsuit.
“But rather than promptly releasing the seized cash to Anthonia as required under federal law, CBP instead sent Anthonia a letter dated April 4, 2018, conditioning the return of the seized cash on Anthonia signing a hold harmless agreement that waives her constitutional and statutory rights, and requires her to accept new legal liabilities, such as indemnifying the government for any claims brought by others related to the seized property,” the lawsuit states.
The April letter told Nwaorie she had 30 days to sign the hold harmless agreement or administrative forfeiture proceedings would begin. If she did sign the agreement, the letter said she would be mailed a refund check for the full seized amount in 8 to 10 weeks, but she would face the new liabilities.
Nwaorie’s attorney, Dan Alban, said in a phone interview Friday that “all her dreams have been put on hold due to CBP’s actions…Nobody should have to sign away their rights to get what’s rightfully theirs.”
The case highlights the federal government’s abusive practice of seizing people’s property without a criminal charge, Alban said. He also thinks the government is trying to keep people from suing over unlawful seizures.
“CBP is holding people’s money hostage,” he said.
A CBP spokesperson said its policy is not to comment on pending litigation.
Nwaorie claims she has already been targeted for intrusive screening following the original seizure incident with the CBP.
In December 2017, upon her return from Nigeria, officers allegedly “ransacked her luggage” and cut open her leather purse, ruining it.
In the same screening, a CBP officer told Nwaorie “that CBP would ‘follow her wherever she goes’ and subject her to this invasive treatment every time she travels internationally,” according to the lawsuit.
Nwaorie claims CBP’s policy requiring the execution of a hold harmless agreement violates CAFRA and the Fifth Amendment.
“Specifically, claim two challenges defendants’ conditioning a ‘benefit’ (the automatic release of the property under CAFRA, along with the constitutional right to possess property that one owns) on the waiver of other constitutional rights, such as the First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances by bringing suit against the government,” the complaint states.
She seeks to represent a class of claimants who were or will be subject to CBP’s policy of conditioning the return of seized property on signing a hold harmless agreement, despite its obligation to “promptly release” the seized property under CAFRA.
Nwaorie also brings individual claims in which she demands the immediate return of the $41,377 seized from her, with interest, plus declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the CBP from targeting her for additional, intrusive airport screenings.
She is represented by Alban and Anya Bidwell, both with the Institute for Justice.