Gerardo Serrano was driving from the United States to Mexico to visit relatives in August of 2015, when he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities who searched his vehicle. Serrano had a concealed carry permit, and he had forgotten about five bullets in the console of the truck he was driving. They turned up in the search of the vehicle, and authorities declared them to be “munitions of war.” Regardless of the fact that Serrano wasn’t charged with any criminal offenses, his $40,000 Ford pick up truck was immediately seized pursuant to federal civil forfeiture laws.
Federal law allows a civil forfeiture victim to seek the return of their property, but it involves tedious and expensive procedures. Most people simply don’t have the money to invoke their procedural rights, so the government keeps their property. Law enforcement then either uses the property for its own purposes, or it’s auctioned off. Serrano didn’t want either of those two things to happen, so he posted a $4,000 bond and waited for notice of when the forfeiture hearing would be held. He received no such notice, but he continued to make his loan and insurance payments on the truck for two years. In the interim, he contacted The Institute for Justice IJ, a libertarian civil liberties and public interest law firm that provides free legal representation to its clients. IJ saw a forfeiture abuse and contacted CBP.
Suddenly Serrano was notified that he could get his truck back and $4,000 back. It was washed and freshly waxed. The truck even had a new set of tires on it. Serrano probably wasn’t the only person that this happened to. During 2015, at the four U.S. border crossings in Texas, 525 vehicles had been taken from U.S. citizens and legal residents. Serrano’s story doesn’t end with the return of his truck and money. He’s now included as a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against CBP.