The pandemic put Kermit Warren, a shoeshine man from New Orleans, out of work. He planned to live on his savings to float him until business picked up again. But plans took a horrifying turn last November when federal drug agents stopped him in the Columbus airport in Ohio while he was carrying $30,000 in cash.
Warren was returning home with money initially intended for purchasing a pickup truck, a vehicle better fit for his side hustle of recycling metal. The transaction fell through because the truck was much bigger than what Warren needed. But the DEA stopped him in the airport after a TSA agent tipped them off about the cash, which happened to be Warren's entire life savings. The feds found his one-way ticket, no luggage, shaky answers, and the cash increasingly suspicious.
Then, drug-sniffing dogs were called in, according to court documents. They detected the presence of drugs on some of the money. (Keep in mind, however, that a large percentage of currency in circulation is believed to contain drug residue.) Long story short, the DEA assumed the cash was drug money. While the DEA didn't charge Warren, they seized the money.
With his life savings gone and the COVID-19 pandemic depriving him of regular work as a shoe shiner, Warren barely had the means to make ends meet over the past year. He couldn't even buy his grandchildren Christmas gifts. "This last year has truly been a nightmare for me," said Warren.
Thankfully, he received some good news last week: Federal prosecutors agreed to return all of his money and dismiss the case, according to a settlement agreement signed Thursday. The document was obtained by NBC News in the originally reported story. "It gives me a great amount of joy and peace," Warren said. "What happened to me should never happen to anybody in this world."
Unfortunately, thousands of people are stopped and stripped of their cash each year in the US by law enforcement, thanks to what's known as "civil asset forfeiture." It is a process in which law enforcement officers take assets from people suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.
It isn't hard to see how this process, which is legal under US federal law, can become an abuse of power. Proponents of civil forfeiture argue that the process is an essential tool for law enforcement to use against drug traffickers, who are known to use cars and planes to ship large amounts of cash around the country. Critics say it's routinely used against innocent people and disproportionately impacts people of color — as every drug-related law does.
It can take a lot of time and resources to reverse a civil forfeiture, leading many to walk away from items such as cash and cars. Warren won his case with the help of lawyers from the Virginia-based nonprofit, Institute for Justice.
"We're relieved that Kermit is getting his money back, but we're also very upset that he was left destitute for an entire year for no good reason due to the callous, profit-driven actions of the DEA and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Ohio," said Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, to NBC News. "Kermit's case highlights how the federal government abuses civil forfeiture. It seizes cash on the flimsiest of pretexts – traveling with cash at an airport – and effectively forces people to prove their own innocence to get their money back."
A spokeswoman for the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Ohio confirmed the settlement agreement but provided no further comment. And, SURPRISE! The DEA also did not respond to a request for comment.
Thankfully this story has a happy ending, and Warren has received his money back — just in time to get his grandchildren gifts for the holidays.