When Kermit Warren lost his job shining shoes during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he and his son took his life savings of nearly $30,000 to buy a tow truck to support Mr. Warren’s longtime side business of collecting scrap metal.
But after flying from New Orleans to Ohio to buy the truck, Mr. Warren and his son discovered that it was the wrong kind — it was designed for hauling heavy equipment, not scrap metal — so they returned home with $28,180 in cash in a pink gift bag.
As Mr. Warren walked through security at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, the screeners asked him about the money and then let him continue on.
At the gate, just before Mr. Warren and his son boarded their flight, three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration asked Mr. Warren about the cash. He “stammered” that he had flown to Ohio to buy a truck but could not give the year, make or model, or show an ad or a picture of the truck, federal prosecutors later said in court papers.
In a panic, Mr. Warren said, he pulled out a badge that had belonged to another son, a former New Orleans police officer, and claimed to be a retired officer. The agents soon suspected that Mr. Warren was carrying illegal drug money and seized the cash. Then they let him and his son, Leo, board the plane.
“I never knew in my whole 58 years as a man in the United States that three D.E.A. agents could take a man’s money from him that he worked for, and not had committed any kind of crime, or was arrested for doing any type of wrongdoing,” Mr. Warren said in a video released by his lawyers. “How could they just take my money from me like that?”
The seizure, on Nov. 4, 2020, led to a yearlong ordeal that highlighted what Mr. Warren’s lawyers call the injustice of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize the cash, cars or other personal property of people suspected of crimes but not charged.
The practice is a popular way to raise revenue but has been easily abused and widely criticized for depriving people of their right to due process and for disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color like Mr. Warren, who is Black.
Flying domestically with any amount of cash is legal, but law enforcement officials routinely seize large amounts of cash at airports, according to the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents Mr. Warren. The institute has sued the D.E.A. and the Transportation Security Administration, accusing the agencies of seizing travelers’ money without probable cause.
Dan Alban, an institute lawyer who represents Mr. Warren, said that prosecutors already have tools to seize cash and other property used in crimes after a person is charged and convicted.
“Civil forfeiture, in contrast, does not even require criminal charges to be brought, let alone a criminal conviction,” Mr. Alban said. “It punishes people for a crime without convicting them of that crime.”
It wasn’t until April that federal prosecutors filed a formal civil forfeiture complaint, asserting that the money was connected to illegal drug activity and that the government should keep it.
Prosecutors noted that Mr. Warren had falsely claimed to be a retired police officer, that he was flying with a one-way ticket and that he did not have any carry-on bags or a change of clothes. They also later said he was “linked” to a house connected to drug trafficking — a claim his lawyers refuted.
Mr. Alban said he provided prosecutors with text messages that showed that workers at Buckeye Forklift in Plain City, Ohio, were aware that Mr. Warren was coming to inspect a truck. Mr. Alban also gave prosecutors an Uber receipt showing that Mr. Warren and his son had traveled from a gas station near Buckeye Forklift to the airport in Columbus on the morning the cash was seized.
He gave prosecutors Mr. Warren’s tax returns and pay stubs dating to 2016, proving that he had worked at Central Grocery & Deli in New Orleans (where he mixed olive salad for muffuletta sandwiches), that he had been a longshoreman at the Port of New Orleans and that he had shined shoes at the Roosevelt New Orleans hotel until he was laid off last year.
The evidence showed “he had a legitimate purpose for his trip to Ohio and a legitimate source for the cash he had earned,” Mr. Alban said.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors agreed to return all $28,180 to Mr. Warren and to dismiss their civil forfeiture complaint “with prejudice,” which means that it cannot be refiled, Mr. Alban said.
In the agreement, prosecutors did not admit any wrongdoing. Prosecutors and the D.E.A. did not respond to emails seeking comment on Saturday.
“It’s amazing,” Mr. Warren said in an interview on Saturday. “I thank God for it because without facts, you can’t have truth. I had everything in order. All my i’s were dotted. All my t’s were crossed. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Unlike Mr. Warren, most people do not go to court to reclaim their seized cash and property, Mr. Alban said, in part because the cost of a lawyer is often greater than the value of the property they are seeking.
The median amount of cash forfeitures by agencies under the Justice Department from 2015 to 2019 was about $12,000, Mr. Alban said. At the state level, it was about $1,000, he said.
The amounts show “these are not big drug kingpins,” Mr. Alban said. “The people most frequently impacted are everyday people, working-class people and the poor.”
Mr. Warren said the hardest part of having his money seized was not being able to pay his bills over the past year, buy gifts for his grandchildren or treat himself to a steak dinner.
In the agreement he reached with federal prosecutors, they said they would return his money to him by Nov. 25, Thanksgiving.