(NYTIMES) – Odd-job worker Kermit Warren had about US$30,000 (S$40,600) cash on him when he flew from New Orleans to Ohio to buy a truck for a recycling business. What he did not count on was being stopped at the airport on suspicion of being involved in smuggling.

When he walked through security at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, the screeners asked him about the money and then let him continue on.

At the gate, just before he and his son boarded their flight, three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) asked him about the cash. He “stammered” that he had flown to Ohio to buy a truck but could not give the year, make or model, or show an ad or a picture of the truck.

The agents soon suspected him of carrying illegal drug money and seized the cash. Then they let him and his son Leo board the plane.

“I never knew in my whole 58 years as a man in the United States that three DEA agents could take a man’s money from him that he worked for, and not had committed any kind of crime, or was arrested for any type of wrongdoing,” Mr Warren said in a video released by his lawyers. “How could they just take my money from me like that?”

The seizure, on Nov 4 last year, led to a year-long ordeal that highlighted what his lawyers call the injustice of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize the cash, cars or other personal property of people suspected of crimes but not charged.

The practice is a popular way to raise revenue but has been easily abused and widely criticised for depriving people of their right to due process and for disproportionately affecting poor people.

Flying domestically with any amount of cash is legal, but law enforcement officials routinely seize large amounts of cash at airports, according to the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents Mr Warren. The institute has sued the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration, accusing the agencies of seizing travellers’ money without probable cause.

Mr Dan Alban, who represents Mr Warren, said prosecutors have tools to seize cash and other property used in crimes after a person is charged and convicted.

“Civil forfeiture, in contrast, does not even require criminal charges to be brought, let alone a criminal conviction,” he said. “It punishes people for a crime without convicting them of that crime.”

Prosecutors noted that Mr Warren was flying with a one-way ticket and that he did not have any carry-on bags or a change of clothes. They also later said he was “linked” to a house connected to drug trafficking – a claim his lawyers refuted.

Mr Alban said he provided prosecutors with text messages that showed that workers at Buckeye Forklift in Plain City, Ohio, were aware that he was coming to inspect a truck.

He also gave prosecutors an Uber receipt showing that Mr Warren and his son had travelled from a petrol station near Buckeye Forklift to the airport in Columbus on the morning the cash was seized.

He gave prosecutors Mr Warren’s tax returns and pay stubs dating to 2016, proving that he had worked at Central Grocery & Deli in New Orleans, that he had been a longshoreman at the Port of New Orleans and that he had a job shining shoes at the Roosevelt New Orleans hotel until he was laid off last year. The evidence showed “he had a legitimate purpose for his trip to Ohio and a legitimate source for the cash he had earned”, Mr Alban said.

The federal prosecutors have since agreed to return all the money seized – US$28,180 – to Mr Warren and to dismiss their civil forfeiture complaint “with prejudice”, which means that it cannot be refiled.

The median amount of cash forfeitures by agencies under the US Justice Department from 2015 to 2019 was about US$12,000, Mr Alban said. The amounts show “these are not big drug kingpins”, he said. “The people most frequently impacted are everyday people, working-class people and the poor.”