AZ police seized $40K from trucking boss seeking to buy new rig, claim without evidence it’s drug money

Imagine, for a moment, that you own a trucking company, and you’ve headed to an out-of-state auction, cash in hand, to purchase a new rig. Suddenly, during a so-called “routine stop,” you are accused without evidence of transporting drug money, you’re threatened with arrest, and you’re compelled to sign away your money, despite never being charged with a crime.

This has been the two-year-long nightmare in which North Carolina’s Triple J Trucking owner Jerry Johnson has found himself living, after landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona to attend a Phoenix auction. Cops accused the middle-aged man of laundering illegal drug money when he was discovered carrying $39,500 in cash and allegedly coerced him into relinquishing his funds.

Years later, Johnson has still not been charged with any crime, and police have refused to return his money.

(Video: YouTube)

It’s a familiar and disturbing story to many Americans who have seen their cash and property seized indefinitely on mere suspicions of crimes that have gone uncharged and unproven.

Reports the Daily Mail, “forfeitures at airports surrounding suspected crimes remain largely undefined – with a recent USA Today investigation finding that the DEA seized more than $209 million from at least 5,200 travelers in 15 airports over the past decade.”

Represented by the Institute for Justice, Johnson filed a lawsuit in April.

“Jerry was not charged with any crime, but he has been punished with the forfeiture of nearly $40,000 because he was traveling with a large amount of cash—a completely lawful activity,” the suit argues. “Due to an improper application of Arizona law by the Superior Court, a forfeiture order was entered against Jerry’s property, permanently conveying it to the government. This error necessitates reversal.”

The suit was tossed out last year by a local judge who claimed there were holes in Johnson’s story and ruled the police’s actions were justified.

To support the decision, the judge pointed to an old criminal record from Johnson’s past and the fact that he bought the ticket “last-minute” with a quick return.

Cops noted that, in 2020, Johnson had a “nervous appearance” and was carrying three cell phones, and from that, they deduced he was involved in the drug trade.

On Monday, the Institute for Justice filed an appeal on Johnson’s behalf.

“The court below erred by finding that it is not enough for a property owner to show that they are the genuine owner1 of seized property, but that they also must show that their ownership of that property is innocent. By requiring proof of innocent ownership—proof that a person’s ownership interest is unconnected to criminal activity—property owners are effectively forced to prove their own innocence just to have standing to contest the forfeiture of their property,” the suit argues.

(Video: YouTube)

“I flew to Phoenix thinking I could get a good deal on a truck that would allow me to expand my business,” Johnson said in a press release issued by The Institute for Justice. “Instead, the police took my money without ever charging me with a crime.”

“It’s been a struggle to lose my savings,” he continued, “and now my business is barely getting by.”

The lawsuit demands that Johnson’s cash be returned to him along with unspecified damages to cover the hit the seizure has caused his company.

“I’m fighting for my money,” Johnson said, “but I’m also fighting because this should never happen to anyone else.”

Melissa Fine


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