U.S. Customs Confiscated a Cleveland Immigrant's Life Savings Without Charging Him With a Crime

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click to enlarge Rustem Kazazi, left, sits at home with wife, Lejla, and son Erald in Parma Heights, Ohio. - Courtesy of Institute for Justice
Courtesy of Institute for Justice
Rustem Kazazi, left, sits at home with wife, Lejla, and son Erald in Parma Heights, Ohio.
Rustem Kazazi is currently suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection after agents strip-searched him at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and confiscated the 64-year-old's life savings, more than $58,000 in cash, without charging him of any crime.

The money was seized through civil asset forfeiture, a widespread federal practice that allows law enforcement to take cash and property from people who have not been convicted or charged of a crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is highly critical of the practice, stating: "Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting."

According to the lawsuit filing obtained by the Washington Post, U.S. Customs suspected Rustem Kazazi, was involved in a "smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation."

Kazazi denies the allegations and claims the agency is violating federal law by keeping his money without charging him with a crime, or even filing a formal complaint, a violation of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA).

Kazazi, a retired officer with the Albanian police, relocated with his family to the United States in 2005 after receiving visas through the State Department's lottery program.

The entire family became U.S. citizens in 2010, and now live in Parma Heights.

According to the lawsuit, Kazazi took $58,100 in U.S. currency with him on a trip to Albania to visit relatives, make repairs on a family property and potentially purchase a vacation home. The money is 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.

Erald translated an interview for his father with the Washington Post stating safety concerns prompted him to take cash on his trip, rather than send the funds via wire transfer.

According to Kazazi, Albania has a higher crime rate than in the States, and the exchange rates and fees on transferring funds are excessive. Kazazi explained that Albanian contractors prefer dollars and euros over the local currency, and expatriates often bring large amounts of cash with them for these reasons.

The incident occurred on Oct. 24, 2017 before a flight from Cleveland to Newark, New Jersey, that would then connect with an international flight to Albania. The money was flagged by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) during a routine security check and alerted Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

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

Upon the discovery of the cash, Kazazi was then brought into a smaller room by TSA agents who strip-searched him, only to come up completely empty handed. No drugs, contraband, or evidence of illegal activity were discovered.

Kazazi was provided with a receipt of the seized money, but the agents did not list the dollar amount of the cash.

CBP sent a seizure notice a month after the incident, and noted that there are disclosure requirements for traveling internationally with sums of cash greater than $10,000.

However, Kazazi was traveling from Cleveland to Newark, NJ, a domestic flight. He claims he was planning to file his disclosure form during his layover in Newark as the form instructs 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.”

The U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Ohio has so far declined to comment on the record.

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