The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that a man from whom Phoenix police seized $39,500 in cash despite never submitting criminal charges against him may continue contesting the forfeiture.
The decision comes six months after Jerry Johnson’s attorneys and a representative from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office gave oral arguments before the higher court as to whether the Maricopa County Superior Court’s finding that Johnson failed to prove the money was his was correct.
Johnson had flown into Phoenix from Charlotte, North Carolina, in August 2020 to purchase a third semi-truck for his small shipping company. Johnson had found a posting for a truck he wanted at a Phoenix-based auction and flew to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with $39,500 in cash — $7,500 in his carry-on backpack and $32,000 in boxes he had packed in his checked luggage.
Johnson previously told The Arizona Republic he chose to travel with cash to avoid incurring fees from withdrawing it outside his usual bank and had found articles that said traveling with large amounts of cash was perfectly legal.
But Johnson's money was seized by Phoenix police when officers confronted him at Sky Harbor International Airport and questioned its origin before accusing him of being involved in a money-laundering operation. Johnson said the officer coerced him into signing a waiver form indicating the money wasn’t his, or go to jail.
Such waivers later became illegal after Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that enacted sweeping reforms to the state’s civil forfeiture laws such as requiring a criminal conviction for the state to forfeit one’s property in civil court under most circumstances.
During the oral argument before the Arizona Court of Appeals held on Nov. 9, 2021, the three judges repeatedly questioned and criticized a Maricopa County attorney's argument against Johnson, one of them at one point referring to the process of civil forfeiture, or RICO, as "distasteful."
“I’m sorry if it seems harsh that the state should actually have to come forward with evidence before it takes people’s money away at the airport,” Presiding Judge Peter Swann said at the time.
Dallen Gardner, an attorney representing the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, argued at the time that the money didn’t belong to Johnson, that it didn’t appear to come from Johnson’s business bank account and that he didn’t know exactly how much cash he was carrying when police confronted him.
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“I don’t know how much I have in my wallet,” Swann replied. “Do you need to check it? Should I be worried that the police are going to come check it? Am I going to have to explain where I got it?”
Swann, who penned the court’s decision dated Tuesday, said the lower court erred in its ruling that Johnson had failed to prove the money was his.
“The state argues that Johnson failed to prove ownership, but if it is not Johnson’s money, then whose money is it?” Swann wrote on Tuesday. “The state failed to introduce any evidence of who owned the money.”
Institute for Justice, a libertarian non-profit law firm that’s representing Johnson’s appeal, celebrated the higher court’s decision to reverse the lower court’s initial ruling.
“Today’s decision points out the obvious: Jerry Johnson properly proved ownership of his money and has the right to defend it in court,” Alexa Gervasi, one of the attorneys representing Johnson, said in a written statement. “The scales are already tipped in the government’s favor in civil forfeiture, but the lower court went outside the bounds of Arizona law when it forced Jerry to prove his own innocence. We are glad that Jerry will have his day in court to defend against the unjust forfeiture of his life savings.”
Andrew Wimer, a spokesperson for Institute for Justice, said the State has 30 days to appeal the Court of Appeals’ ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court. Otherwise, the case will return to Maricopa County Superior Court where the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office will have to prove Johnson’s money was connected to criminal activity or return it.
It was not immediately clear whether MCAO planned to appeal the decision.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Court of Appeals reverses $39,500 civil forfeiture decision