In the United States, a person accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Sadly though, the backbone of our legal system has been warped beyond recognition.
In 2017, agents from Customs and Border Patrol confiscated a 64-year-old’s life savings despite finding no proof that he had or was about to commit a crime. Now, he’s the one who has to prove his own innocence instead of the people who stole from him…
Winning The Immigration Lottery
After a retired officer from the Albanian police applied for visas to live in the United States through the State Department’s lottery program, the family got word that their visas had been approved in 2005 and they started making plans to move.
Chasing The American Dream
In order to have more opportunity and a chance at the ‘American Dream’, the family uprooted their lives and moved to the United States shortly after. They settled in Parma Heights, a suburb in Cleveland, Ohio, and started to rebuild their lives…
Growing New Roots
Even though the family loved their home country, Albania is rife with crime and living in America gave them opportunities that they would never have had in Albania. After a few years living in the United States, the family cemented their lives in their new home by becoming U.S. citizens in 2010.
A Trip To Albania
In the years that followed, the family deepened its roots in the county and their community. However, they had begun to miss Albania and their loved ones since they hadn’t been back to visit their friends and family members for a few years…
So in 2017, 64-year-old Rustem Kaszazi, his wife, Lejla, and his son Erald, decided to take a trip back to Albania. Not only did they want to take the trip to visit their loved ones, but it would also give them an opportunity to make some repairs on a family property and purchase a vacation home.
After doing some planning, Rustem and his family decided to take cash with them on the trip. “The crime [in Albania] is much worse than it is here,” Rustem explained. “Other people that have made large withdrawals [from Albanian banks] have had people intercept them and take their money…
A Need For Cash
“The exchange rates and fees are [also] excessive,” Rustem added. In addition to the crime and the fees, contractors in Albania actually prefer to be paid in American dollars or Euros over the local currency, the Albanian Lek.
So on October 24, 2017, Rustem packed $58,100 in U.S. currency in his carry-on bag and headed off to the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The money was packed into 3 counted and labeled envelopes with receipts from their bank and documents about the family’s property in Albania…
Their Life Savings
The $58,100 was the family’s life savings, which had been saved up over the past 12 years by Rustem, Lejla, and Erald, who is about to graduate from Cleveland State University with a degree in chemical engineering.
The Flight Plan
On October 24, Rustem began the journey back to Albania while his wife and son followed a few days later. After leaving Cleveland, Rustem was scheduled to make a layover in Newark, New Jersey to connect with his international flight…
Following The Rules
While in Newark, Rustem planned to fill out the necessary paperwork to disclose the money he was bringing with him overseas since the paperwork instructs travelers to file the paperwork, “at the time of departure from the United States with the Customs officer in charge at any Customs port of entry or departure.”
A Missed Opportunity
“If he’s going to follow the law on this, he’s going to have to do it in Newark on the way out of the country,” said Wesley Hottot, the Kazazi family’s attorney. Unfortunately, Rustem never got the opportunity to file the paperwork because he no longer had the money…
A Suspicious Carry-On
While Rustem was supposed to be waiting for his flight in the terminal, he was left sitting in a small, windowless room getting strip-searched after Transportation Security Administration agents found the $58,100 in his carry-on bag and alerted Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The Language Barrier
“They asked me some questions, which I could not understand as they spoke too quickly,” Rustem explained. “I asked them for an interpreter and asked to call my family, but they denied my request.” Instead, the agents continued to interrogate Rustem in a language he couldn’t fully understand and search his body…
Reason To Worry
“I felt my rights violated,” said Rustem. The agents failed to find any drugs or evidence of illegal activity, but they confiscated his life savings anyway and handed him a receipt without any dollar value written down of how much they took from him. “I began to worry that they were trying to steal the money for themselves.”
Once he was released, Rustem immediately called his wife and son and told them what happened. They were sure there had been some misunderstanding and promised to handle it for him. However, when they contacted CPB, they explained the money had been seized as a civil asset forfeiture, a technique where authorities are allowed to take cash and property from someone never even convicted or charged with a crime…
Grasping At Straws
CPB explained that they had reason to believe Rustem was ‘involved in smuggling, drug trafficking, or money laundering’ even though they found no evidence that he was planning to commit a crime with his own life savings. CPB also told the family that Rustem never declared the money. “Failure to declare monetary instruments in amounts more than $10,000 can result in fines or forfeiture and could result in civil and or criminal penalties,” CPB said. However, Rustem was never given the chance to do so.
Now, Rustem, who feels CPB violated federal law by taking his money without filing any charge or complaint against him, has filed a federal lawsuit to get his money back instead of trying to settle the issue with CBP, who the family no longer trusts. “They were the ones that seized our money,” Erald said. “We wanted another party like the attorney’s office to deal with this case. Based on my father’s experience, it didn’t seem like CBP really wanted to help us out…”
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
By taking the case to court, however, Rustem, who was never charged with any crime, is being forced to prove he is innocent, which contradicts the decree ‘innocent until proven guilty’. “The government can just take everything from you,” said Hottot.
The Fight Continues
“You have to affirmatively show you’re not a criminal to get your own money back. You have to effectively prove a negative,” Hottot added. While Rustem still has to prove his innocence and fight for money that was stolen from him, his opinion of the country hasn’t been affected. “He’s not going to let the actions of some employees that made a mistake in their duties change his opinion of the country,” Erald said.