Kermit Warren, an unemployed New Orleans shoe shiner, was carrying nearly $30,000 in cash through the Columbus, Ohio, airport last November when federal drug agents stopped him and began questioning him.

Warren was returning home with his life savings after his truck purchase fell through. He had a one-way plane ticket, no luggage, and shaky answers about himself and the cash, leading the agents to believe it was drug money.

Warren was not charged with a crime, but the agents took all of his money. With his savings gone and no steady work due to the Covid pandemic, the long-serving church deacon barely made ends meet. He claimed he couldn’t even afford to buy Christmas presents for his seven grandchildren.

Every year, law enforcement in the United States stops thousands of people and takes their money through a process known as civil asset forfeiture.

The contentious practice allows the government to seize people’s property if it is suspected of being linked to criminal activity, even if no criminal charges are filed.

Civil forfeiture supporters argue that it is an essential law enforcement tool against drug traffickers, who are known to use cars and planes to transport large sums of money across the country. According to critics, it is frequently used against innocent people and disproportionately affects people of color.

Challenging a civil forfeiture can be a time-consuming and costly process, leading many people to abandon assets such as cash and cars.

Warren’s case was won with the assistance of lawyers from the Virginia-based nonprofit Institute for Justice.

In January 2020, the Institute for Justice filed a class action lawsuit against the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration, alleging that the agencies routinely violate airport passengers’ constitutional rights by seizing their money without probable cause. Among the plaintiffs in the suit is a woman from Massachusetts who had more than $80,000 seized at the Pittsburgh airport while returning home with her parents’ savings to open a new bank account. Six months later, the money was returned, but the lawsuit is still pending.

Kermit Warren has saved whatever money he could over the past two decades by shining shoes, helping to make muffalleta sandwiches at the famed Central Grocery, and cleaning his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood for FEMA after Hurricane Katrina.

During the pandemic, Warren lost his shoeshine job at the Roosevelt Hotel, prompting him to look for a tow truck to help him expand his side gig scrapping metal. He thought he’d found the perfect vehicle, but when he and his son arrived in Ohio to buy it, he discovered it was better suited to hauling large construction equipment.

When he and his son returned to the Columbus airport, a TSA screener noticed the cash but allowed Warren to continue. According to court documents, DEA agents approached Warren and his son shortly after and began questioning them.

Federal prosecutors said in court papers that Warren struggled to explain the source of the money. Warren panicked during questioning and falsely claimed to be a retired police officer. According to court documents, he admitted to them shortly after that he had misled them. Warren’s cash was seized, but he and his son were allowed to leave without being charged.

Prosecutors filed a civil complaint against the seized money, as is customary in civil forfeitures. Warren objected to the seizure, and the case appeared to be headed to trial.

Prosecutors eventually relented after Warren’s lawyers presented them with a slew of exonerating evidence, including text messages with the truck’s owner and financial documents demonstrating his income over the years.

In addition to returning all of the seized money – $28,180 – prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case against him with prejudice, which means they will not be able to go after the money again in the future. Warren agreed to drop any legal action against the government as part of the deal.

Although it is unclear when the funds will be returned to Warren, prosecutors have stated that they will “make all best efforts” to do so by Thanksgiving.

Warren, for one, said the experience has convinced him to keep his money in a bank and to never travel with large sums of cash again.