KATY, Texas – A Katy nurse is suing Customs and Border Protection for seizing $41,000 from her last year and not giving it back, despite the fact they never charged her with a crime.
In October 2017, Anthonia Nwaorie was flying from Bush Intercontinental Airport to Nigeria to open a medical clinic in her rural hometown.
Nwaorie, a U.S. citizen who has lived in the Houston area since 1982, had saved more than $33,000 for the project and was also carrying an additional $7,400 to give to relatives.
As she was about to board the plane a customs agent stopped her.
"He said 'how many people are you carrying money for today?'" Nwaorie recalled.
She explained what the money was for but was detained and searched.
"I was treated like a common criminal," she said.
Anthonia unknowingly violated a federal law requiring travelers to file a report when leaving the U.S. with more than $10,000 in currency.
"The problem is there isn't a customs checkpoint to go thru to do that and nobody hands you a form," says Nwaorie's attorney, Dan Alban with the Institute for Justice.
That report must be filed at an off-site port of entry before arriving at the airport.
Alban calls it a technical violation of an obscure rule.
"And people fall victim to this all the time; it's a trap for the unwary," he added.
Anthonia was never charged with a crime and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to pursue civil forefeiture of the money.
"Once the U.S. Attorney Office decided not to pursue the forfeiture, customs was required under federal law to promptly release the property back to Anthonia," Alban said.
Instead, CBP sent her a letter in April stating she can only get the money back if she agrees to reimburse the government for expenses and fees and waives her right to sue.
"That is like putting salt to an injury. These people have kept my money for six months, I need my money," she said.
The federal class-action lawsuit filed in Houston last Thursday in the United States District Court For the Southern District of Texas claims CBP violated Nwaorie's constitutional rights.
The suit asks a judge to rule that CBP cannot require people who are entitled to get back seized property from customs to sign agreements giving away their constitutional rights and to rule that any agreements that have been signed be declared void.
It also asks that anyone whose property has been withheld because they didn't sign an agreement have their property returned to them.