Police Forced to Return Tens of Thousands of Dollars Confiscated from Innocent Trucker in 2020
A North Carolina man’s almost three-year-long battle to get his own money back has reached a victory — but the fight isn’t over yet.
Jerry Johnson, a Charlotte resident who owns a small trucking company, flew into Phoenix, Arizona, in August 2020 with $39,500 to buy a truck at auction, according to The Arizona Republic.
He said he brought the money in cash to avoid fees he would be charged for withdrawing it from a bank that wasn’t his usual institution, the Republic reported.
However, at Sky Harbor International Airport, Johnson was questioned about the cash — $7,000 in his carry-on luggage and $32,500 in boxes that he had checked.
According to the Republic, police did not accept Johnson’s story that he was a businessman making a purchase. One officer filled out a form and told Johnson he could sign it or spend the night in jail, the Republic reported.
Johnson signed the form, but told the Republic he did not understand it. It was a waiver form, acknowledging the money was not his, the newspaper reported.
Police seized the money, claiming Johnson could be a drug courier, according to KPNX-TV in Phoenix.
Johnson was never charged with a crime, and when he first tried to get his money — which was intended to buy a third truck to add to his two-truck operation, according to The Arizona Republic — a trial court dismissed his effort.
After that, the Institute for Justice, a non-profit law firm with an extensive track record of fighting civil forfeiture cases, took on Johnson’s case, according to an Institute for Justice news release.
The Arizona Court of Appeals has sided with Johnson, saying his due process rights were violated.
Today, @IJ #forfeiture client Jerry Johnson *finally* got his savings back from @MaricopaCounty, 31 months after an August 2020 seizure @PHXSkyHarbor (& 10 months after we won his case on appeal.)
We’re still fighting for statutory interest & attorney fees, but this is a start! pic.twitter.com/V82tUvNDQm
— Dan Alban (@DanAlban) March 18, 2023
“I’m sorry if it seems harsh that the state should actually have to come forward with evidence before it takes people’s money away at the airport,” Judge Peter Swann said, according to the Republic.
Eventually, the state moved to dismiss the case and paid Johnson $40,298, which included his original sum and a tiny amount of interest.
In the news release, Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban called the Johnson case an example of the injustice of civil forfeiture law.
In May 2021, then-Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law overwhelmingly passed by the state House and Senate to reform the state’s civil forfeiture law to make it more difficult for officials to seize individuals’ property, according to The Associated Press.
But Johnson’s case lingered on.
“Jerry’s case potently illustrates the injustice of civil forfeiture even when someone ultimately gets their property back,” Alban said in the news release.
“It took 31 months for Jerry to finally get his savings back even though he was never even charged with a crime. In the middle of the COVID pandemic, Jerry had to find a way to keep operating his small trucking business after its working capital was seized,” he said.
“Jerry still needs to be made whole,” he said.
Johnson received less than 0.8% in accrued interest and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office would not pay the attorney fees Johnson racked up before the Institute for Justice took his case.
“This would leave Jerry uncompensated for the years his money was locked away and for what he paid out-of-pocket to an attorney before IJ took on his case,” the Institute for Justice release stated.
The Institute for Justice said it pursuing to get Johnson reimbursed for all of the money he has spent on the case.
“It took 31 months for Jerry to finally get his savings back even though he was never even charged with a crime… We’re glad that the money has been returned, but Jerry still needs to be made whole.”
—IJ Senior Attorney @DanAlban#CivilForfeiturehttps://t.co/mX9URZ0xYu
— Institute for Justice (@IJ) March 21, 2023
“It’s a blessing to finally have my savings back so that I can invest it in my business,” Johnson said in the release.
“That the government could take my money, never charge me with a crime but hold onto my savings for so long is outrageous. It created a tremendous financial burden for me and my family, and there were a lot of business opportunities I’ve missed out on because that money was just sitting in a government account,” he said
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