HOUSTON (FOX 26) - A Katy woman says she's mad and she's not taking it anymore. This is after that woman has waited six months to get tens of thousands of dollars back that was confiscated by Customs and Border Protection agents at the airport. What is she doing? Slapping the federal agency with a class action lawsuit.
Anthonia Nwaorie has had a desire to give back to her home country since her daughter died a decade ago.
“My dream in my hometown Nigeria is to open up a clinic where I will take care of children and women basically or mainly and that has been a dream that I've had for the past 10 years,” Nwaorie says.
Instead of dreaming, Nwaorie started to take action. The naturalized U.S. citizen and nurse said she saved more $40,000 over the last six years. She was heading home to Nigeria to build that clinic until she was stopped by customs agents at George Bush Airport.
“Asking me how many people are you counting money today for? How many people are traveling with you? I was stunned. I didn't know what to say. He said, ‘how long have you been in the United States?’ I told him I've been in the United States since 1982,” Nwaorie says.
Nwaorie says that's when the nightmare began. She missed her flight to Nigeria and was taken into custody, landing in an interview room for Customs and Border Protection. She says it’s where a search of her luggage resulted in the agents finding her $41,000, money she was required to declare under U.S. law because it was over $10,000. The Katy resident said she simply did not know the law.
“They took me to a room and patted me down like you would do to a criminal. I came out. They sat down and counted the money and handed me over a form that has the amount of money and they told me ‘you don't call us until after 30 day. We'll call you.’”
Nwaorie eventually received a call from customs saying the U.S. attorney had no interest in prosecuting her and she could get her money back with strings attached.
“I have to sign that I will not sue them. I will not ask for interest on the money. I will not ask for any attorney fees or any attorney fees that might accrue before they could release it. And when they receive that letter then I have to wait for 8 to 10 weeks to get the money,” Nwaorie says.
That's when Nwaorie decided to get an attorney on the case. An attorney who says this was a money grab and it happens far too often at customs.
“This is as bad as it gets, when it comes to unconstitutional behavior. She is legally entitled to the return of her property, of the money that was her life savings,” attorney Anya Bidwell says.
That's why Bidwell with the Institute for Justice has filed a class action lawsuit. It's against customs on Nwaorie's behalf, as well as possibly thousands of others who have seen this type of forfeiture.
“Customs is still behaving in such a manner where it's trying to force her to give up her constitutional rights before they return her property. The system needs to be reformed,” Bidwell says.
In the meantime, Nwaorie's dream of building that clinic in Nigeria is on hold as she takes on a legal battle against a government in her adopted home country.
We reached out to the federal agency to get a comment on this case, and so far we have not heard back.
In the meantime, Texas law enforcement is raking in millions through money and property seizures.
The Institute for Justice, which is pushing for forfeiture reform, gives Texas a D-plus for its civil forfeiture laws.
According to its research, Customs and Border Patrol conducts more than 120,000 seizures each year around the country. It says Texas law enforcement agencies reported forfeiting more than half a billion dollars between 2001 and 2013— that averages out to about $41 million a year. As much as 70 percent of those proceeds go to law enforcement agencies in most cases.
Here to tell us more about those civil forfeitures is attorney Jolanda Jones.