Trucking company owner gets interest on seized money
April 10, 2023
An Arizona court has ruled that a small-business trucking company owner is owed interest on cash seized when he flew to Phoenix to buy a truck at an auction.
The Arizona Superior Court for Maricopa County dismissed the state’s civil asset forfeiture case to keep Jerry Johnson’s $39,500 in a ruling dated April 4. The ruling said he also is owed 9% interest for the loss of use of his property and is eligible to be compensated for his attorneys’ fees.
In March, Johnson’s money was returned to him after a battle that lasted more than two and a half years. The state returned Johnson’s money and paid less than 0.8% in accrued interest, which is below the state’s statutory rate for judgments. It also refused to pay his attorneys’ fees.
Johnson’s $39,500 in cash was seized Aug. 17, 2020, at baggage claim for Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. He had flown in from Charlotte, N.C., to attend a truck auction. He had the money in cardboard boxes in his carry-on backpack and his checked luggage.
Johnson owns Triple J Logistics, which is licensed in Maryland. He works from the Charlotte, N.C., area hauling dry van freight. He was expecting to add a third truck to his fleet when he flew to Phoenix to attend a Ritchie Bros. auction.
Johnson was not charged with a crime when his money was taken from him. The money was seized through civil asset forfeiture, a process by which the money was deemed “guilty” regardless of whether the person possessing it is even charged with a crime. Law enforcement officers at the airport suggested the money was illegal drug money being laundered. Johnson had a couple of drug possession convictions from more than a decade before the money was seized.
Johnson reports he is still in business. He is glad his money was returned to him and interest and attorney fees paid. However, the confiscation ordeal still robbed him of the opportunity to buy another truck when prices were lower than they are now. Here are some of the problems caused by civil asset forfeiture.
“We’re ecstatic that Jerry has been awarded interest for the time he was left without the operating expenses for his business,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban, senior attorney for the nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice, which appealed the forfeiture of Johnson’s money pro bono. “It’s outrageous that Jerry had to wait this long to get his own hard-earned money back, but this shows just how unjust the entire civil forfeiture system is. Even when a property owner ultimately wins their case, it takes years of litigation to get their property back, and the government fights to avoid any responsibility for making them whole after upending their life.”
Civil asset forfeiture reform
There have been some efforts at the state level to reform civil asset forfeiture. For instance, Arizona stiffened its rules shortly after Johnson’s money was seized, but his case still came under previous law.
In states where lawmakers have tried to rein in civil asset forfeiture abuse, law enforcement officers can make a deal with federal authorities to take the money by civil asset forfeiture. In 2017, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to raise the standard at the federal level, but it died in committee. In March, Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Tim Walberg, R-Mich., reintroduced the FAIR Act. LL