When Kermit Warren lost his job shining shoes 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 longtime side business of collecting scrap metal.
But after flying from New Orleans to Ohio to buy the truck, Mr. Warren and his son discovered that it was the wrong kind — it was designed for hauling heavy equipment, not scrap metal — so they returned home with $28,180 in cash in a pink gift bag.
As Mr. Warren walked through security at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, the screeners asked him about the money and then let him continue on.
At the gate, just before Mr. Warren and his son boarded their flight, three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration asked Mr. Warren about the cash. He “stammered” that he had flown to Ohio to buy a truck but could not give the year, make or model, or show an ad or a picture of the truck, federal prosecutors later said in court papers.
In a panic, Mr. Warren said, he pulled out a badge that had belonged to another son, a former New Orleans police officer, and claimed to be a retired officer. The agents soon suspected that Mr. Warren was carrying illegal drug money and seized the cash. Then they let him and his son, Leo, board the plane.
“I never knew in my whole 58 years as a man in the United States that three D.E.A. agents could take a man’s money from him that he worked for, and not had committed any kind of crime, or was arrested for doing any type of wrongdoing,” Mr. Warren said in a video released by his lawyers. “How could they just take my money from me like that?”
The seizure, on Nov. 4, 2020, led to a yearlong ordeal that highlighted what Mr. Warren’s lawyers call the injustice of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize the cash, cars or other personal property of people suspected of crimes but not charged.
The practice is a popular way to raise revenue but has been easily abused and widely criticized for depriving people of their right to due process and for disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color like Mr. Warren, who is Black.
Flying domestically with any amount of cash is legal, but law enforcement officials routinely seize large amounts of cash at airports, according to the Institute …….