Man had $39,500 seized by Arizona police for nearly 3 years. He finally received his money back.

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PHOENIX Over two and a half years after Phoenix police seized $39,500 in cash from him despite never charging him with a crime, Jerry Johnson finally got his money back.

The owner of a shipping company, Johnson had flown from Charlotte, North Carolina, in August 2020 to purchase a third semitruck to expand his small business. Johnson had found a posting for a truck he wanted at a Phoenix-based auction and flew to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with the large sum of money

Johnson previously told The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, he chose to travel with cash to avoid incurring fees from withdrawing it outside his usual bank and had found articles that said traveling with large amounts of cash was perfectly legal.

But before he could retrieve his checked luggage and head to his hotel, Phoenix police officers approached and interrogated him as to the purpose behind the large sum of cash he had brought with him. Johnson explained he intended to purchase a truck for his business.

An officer eventually accused Johnson of being involved in criminal activity and coerced him into signing a waiver form or go to jail.

Johnson previously told The Republic he didn’t understand what he was signing at the time but later learned it was a waiver form indicating the money he had brought with him wasn’t his. Johnson was free to go after signing the form but his money remained in police custody until last weekend.

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Arduous legal ordeal

Johnson endured a litany of legal battles, providing bank statements and tax returns to prove them money was his and not a part of a criminal enterprise. But the court found the evidence was still insufficient.

He later contacted the Virginia-based libertarian nonprofit called Institute for Justice, which has written about and litigated civil-forfeiture cases. Its lawyers reviewed his case and agreed to appeal the lower court’s decision on his behalf.

Three judges with the Arizona Court of Appeals heard Johnson’s case in November 2021 and repeatedly criticized the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s reasoning for seizing the money from Johnson.

“I’m sorry if it seems harsh that the state should actually have to come forward with evidence before it takes people’s money away at the airport,” the Honorable Peter Swann said.

The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in May 2022, ruling that Johnson could continue to contest the forfeiture until prosecutors moved to dismiss the case in 2023.

Johnson was relieved to get the money back but was frustrated police seized his money in the first place.

“It’s a blessing to finally have my savings back so that I can invest it in my business,” said Johnson said. “That the government could take my money, never charge me with a crime but hold onto my savings for so long is outrageous. It created a tremendous financial burden for me and my family, and there were a lot of business opportunities I’ve missed out on because that money was just sitting in a government account.”

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‘Jerry still needs to be made whole’

Dan Alban, a senior attorney for Institute for Justice, said the government owed Johnson more than the money it had seized from him.

“We’re glad that the money has been returned, but Jerry still needs to be made whole,” Alban said in a statement.

The Institute for Justice said Johnson received less than 0.8% in accrued interest and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office refused to pay his attorneys fees.

“This would leave Jerry uncompensated for the years his money was locked away and for what he paid out-of-pocket to an attorney before IJ took on his case,” the non-profit said. “The case will continue as IJ has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings and opposes the state’s motion.”

Civil forfeiture has drawn sharp criticism over the years as it has often allowed law enforcement to seize assets like money and property without needing to charge the owners with a crime — much less obtain a conviction.

The Arizona Legislature has since passed a civil forfeiture reform bill that bars law enforcement from coercing people into signing such waivers and made it much more difficult for the government to keep seized assets without a criminal conviction.

Those who supported reform argued that civil forfeiture laws at the time made getting one’s seized assets back financially unfeasible as the attorney’s fees often necessary to file a legitimate claim often exceeded the monetary value of the asset.

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