North Carolina man in legal battle to recover money taken via asset forfeiture in Arizona

Imagine getting off a plane, having nearly $40,000 seized by cops, and heading home without the cash, or any criminal charges.

That's what happened to a North Carolina man more than a year ago when he landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, and on Nov. 9, 2021, Jerry Johnson had a chance to get his money back.

Johnson has two trucks at his small business in Charlotte, N.C. He wanted a third, so he flew to Phoenix in August of 2020 to try and buy one at an auction.

"I left empty-handed," said Johnson.

He had $39,500 in cash on him to make the purchase. He was stopped by police at the baggage claim.

"Went upstairs to his office. As soon as I got there, he said I was part of a money-laundering investigation," said Johnson.

Johnson says police told him to sign something, or face arrest.

"He gave me a piece of paper. Didn't know what it was. Later on, I found out it was a waiver," said Johnson.

Johnson said he was coerced into signing away the money through civil asset forfeiture.

Johnson was never charged with a crime.

For more than a year, Johnson has been short nearly $40,000. His case was in front of the Arizona Court of Appeals on the morning of Nov. 9.

"All you'd have to do is get a money mule who's never going to disclose who the agent is, and boom, he says it's his, and you're stuck," said Dallen Gardner with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

"I'm sorry if it seems harsh. The state needs to come up with proof," said Hon. Peter B. Swann, a judge with the Court of Appeals.

The Arizona Legislature has made changes since Johnson's case, banning law enforcement from asking for the same signature Johnson gave that forced him to turn over his property.

"The government hasn't shown that [Johnson] was involved in criminal activity, which he was absolutely not. The money is [Johnson's], and so, it should be back in his pocket," said Alexa Gervasi, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. She is representing Johnson.

Johnson and his attorneys are expecting a decision within the next one to three months.

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