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‘A Nightmare’: New Orleans Man Wins Legal Battle to Get Back His $28,000 In Cash Wrongly Seized By DEA Agents In an Ohio Airport

Kermit Warren, an out-of-work shoeshine man from New Orleans, had his life savings returned to him after federal drug agents seized it from him as he was transiting through an Ohio airport last year. 

According to legal documents obtained by NBC News, federal prosecutors agreed on Thursday, Oct. 28, to return nearly $30,000 in cash that federal agents took from Warren with the intention of converting into government property via civil asset forfeiture — a controversial system that permits government officers to seize people’s property even if criminal charges aren’t filed.

Last Nov. 4, while heading back home with his son following a failed truck purchase, agents stopped the longtime church deacon for questioning at a Columbus, Ohio, airport. Warren had already made it through TSA screeners before being stopped.

Kermit Warren, a New Orleans shoeshine man, wins legal battle over his nearly $30,000 seized by DEA agents in an Ohio airport. (Photo: screenshot / 4WWL YouTube & Benjamin Dixon)

He had a one-way plane ticket and no luggage. His answers regarding his identity and the money were deemed suspicious, leading the agents to accuse Warren of carrying drug money. During the encounter Warren allegedly panicked and lied about who he was, telling officers he was a retired police officer, although he quickly admitted that was untrue.

The man had been carrying savings he earned from shining shoes, helping at the famed Central Grocery, and cleaning his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood for FEMA following Hurricane Katrina. That total of $28,180 was taken by the DEA agents who accosted him.

Those agents apparently had been tipped off by the TSA agents who discovered that Warren was carrying the large sum when he passed through airport security.

His explanation to the DEA agents was that he was carrying the money to buy a truck to help him expand his side job scrapping metal he started after losing his shoeshine job at the Roosevelt Hotel, but the truck didn’t fit the job it was needed for. 

The agents didn’t accept that account as they brought in a drug-sniffing K9 that supposedly alerted to the presence of drug residue on some of Warren’s cash. They left the 58-year-old without his money but free to return home to New Orleans.

Warren described his last year to reporters as “a nightmare” after he was left penniless by the agents.

In addition to returning the money, prosecutors dismissed the case against him with prejudice, meaning they couldn’t go after the money at a later date. Warren also agreed not to pursue legal action against the government as part of his deal.

The man said the decision brought him “a great amount of joy and peace.”

“What happened to me should never happen to anybody in this world,” the deacon, who was represented by lawyers from the Institute for Justice, added.

Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Virginia-based libertarian nonprofit, commented on the incident following his team’s win in court. “We’re relieved that Kermit is getting his money back, but we’re also very upset that he was left destitute for an entire year for no good reason due to the callous, profit-driven actions of the DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio,” he told the station.

“Kermit’s case highlights how the federal government abuses civil forfeiture. It seizes cash on the flimsiest of pretexts — traveling with cash at an airport — and effectively forces people to prove their own innocence to get their money back.” 

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