Rustem Kazazi. left, at home with wife Lejla and son Erald in Parma Heights, Ohio. (Institute for Justice)

Rustem Kazazi, left, at home with wife Lejla and son Erald in Parma Heights, Ohio. (Institute for Justice)

Kazazi is a retired officer with the Albanian police who relocated with his family to the United States in 2005 after receiving visas through the State Department’s lottery program. They became U.S. citizens in 2010. After several years away, Kazazi planned a trip to Albania last fall to visit relatives, make repairs on a family property and potentially purchase a vacation home.

He took $58,100 in U.S. currency with him, 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, according to the lawsuit. The family lives in Parma Heights, a suburb of Cleveland.

In an interview translated by his son, Kazazi said safety concerns prompted him to take cash on his trip, rather than wire the funds to a local bank.

“The crime [in Albania] is much worse than it is here,” he said. “Other people that have made large withdrawals [from Albanian banks] have had people intercept them and take their money. The exchange rates and fees are [also] excessive.”

Albanian contractors often prefer dollars and euros over the local currency, Kazazi said. For those reasons, he said, many expatriates who return to visit Albania bring large amounts of cash with them.

On Oct. 24, Kazazi arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to begin the first leg of his journey, which would take him to Newark to connect with an international flight. He carried the cash in three counted and labeled bundles in his carry-on bag, he said, along with receipts from recent bank withdrawals and documentation pertaining to his family’s property in Tirana, the Albanian capital.

According to a translated declaration that Kazazi provided to the court as part of the lawsuit, Transportation Security Administration employees discovered the cash in his bag during a routine security check and alerted Customs and Border Protection.

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

The Kazazis have been caught up in a broader struggle over civil asset forfeiture. Defenders of the practice, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, say it is a valuable tool for fighting drug cartels and other criminal enterprises in cases in which a criminal conviction is difficult to obtain. But media outlets such as The Washington Post and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have found that the process is ripe for abuse.

“The government can just take everything from you,” said Wesley Hottot, the Kazazi family’s attorney. Hottot is with the Institute for Justice, a civil-liberties law firm working to overturn civil forfeiture. People wishing to challenge a civil forfeiture must essentially demonstrate their innocence in court, Hottot said, turning the dictum of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head.

Read the full article here: