Customs and Border Protection is returning a Kentucky man's truck, more than two years after it was seized because Border Patrol officers found five bullets in the truck's center console.
In September 2015, Customs officers seized the pickup truck belonging to Gerardo Serrano after they found the bullets when he attempted to cross the border into Mexico. The agency maintained that the bullets were “munitions of war” and that transporting them to Mexico was illegal.
Serrano says he simply forgot that he left the small ammunition magazine in his truck's center console. Serrano, who holds a concealed carry permit, did not have a gun or any other weapons with him at the time.
Customs never officially charged Serrano with a crime. They never gave him a day in court to fight the allegations against him. But they held on to his truck anyway, under the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize and in many cases keep cash and property from individuals never convicted of any crime.
Supporters, including many law enforcement officers, call civil forfeiture a valuable crime fighting tool that allows authorities to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains. But opponents of the practice, including civil liberties groups on the left and right, say the practice is widely abused and ensnares thousands of innocent Americans each year.
Serrano opted to challenge the seizure, paying a required bond of $4,000 — 10 percent of the truck's value — to do so. But two years after the initial seizure, Customs had still not granted Serrano a hearing. They were still holding on to a truck that he was making loan, registration and insurance payments on.
Last month, Serrano, represented pro bono by a civil liberties law firm called the Institute for Justice, sued. He contended that the seizure was unlawful and that he was entitled to the immediate return of his truck, along with compensatory damages and an injunction to prevent the agency from seizing property in a similar fashion in the future.
A representative from Customs referred The Post to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas. A spokesman for that office said they have no comment on the case at this time.
On Friday, Oct. 13, without offering an explanation, Customs officials contacted Serrano's lawyers and told him that he could go pick up his truck. Accompanied by a lawyer, Serrano drove from Kentucky to Laredo, Tex., this week and picked up the truck on Thursday.
“It's unbelievable! I'm elated by this,” Serrano said in an interview. The truck appeared to be well cared for, with new batteries and tires, and it had been washed and waxed. It had been stored at a private impound lot owned by Apple Towing, a company that contracts with government agencies to manage seized property.
“I was just surprised how much they worked on it because I believe they want me to go away,” Serrano said. “And I'm not going away.”
Serrano's lawyers said that in cases like this, when faced with a legal challenge government agencies often decide to return seized property rather than try to defend the seizure in court.
“The government is using a strategy of giving property back to defeat judicial review,” said Robert Everett Johnson, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice. “Every time they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar they say 'oh, we didn't really mean it.'”
In this particular case, however, Serrano is still seeking compensation for damages incurred from the loss of his truck. “I lost two years of warranty, I kept paying for my [loan] payments, my insurance, my license plate fees,” he said. Customs has also not yet returned the $4,000 bond.
On top of that, the Institute for Justice is also seeking a class action certification to represent other individuals who may have had property taken from them in similar situations.
The federal government must file a response to Serrano's lawsuit by mid-November. “We're going to keep pressing forward with this,” Johnson said, “because the government can't be allowed to evade judicial review because of a calculated strategy of giving back property when they're caught violating the Constitution.”
Serrano, for his part, feels a certain amount of vindication now that his truck has been returned. He said that people automatically assumed that he was guilty of a crime simply because Customs seized his truck.
“It's just so un-American,” he said of civil asset forfeiture. “That policy does not belong in our country.”