Gerardo Serrano
Gerardo Serrano (Institute for Justice via AP)

By Mark Sherman, AP

Gerardo Serrano ticked off the border crossing agents by taking some photos on his phone. So they took his pickup truck and held onto it for more than two years.

Only after Serrano filed a federal lawsuit did he get back his Ford F-250. Now he wants the Supreme Court to step in and require a prompt court hearing as a matter of constitutional fairness whenever federal officials take someone’s property under civil forfeiture law.

The justices could consider his case when they meet privately on Friday.

It’s a corner of the larger forfeiture issue, when federal, state or local officials take someone’s property, without ever having to prove that it has been used for illicit purposes.

Since 2000, governments have acquired at least $68.8 billion in forfeited property, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that represents Serrano and tracks seizures. The group says the number “drastically underestimates forfeiture’s true scope” because not all states provide data.

Serrano’s troubles stemmed from some pictures he took along the way of a long trip from his home in Tyner, Kentucky, to visit relatives, including a dying aunt, in Zaragosa, Mexico. The photo-taking attracted the attention of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Eagle Pass, Texas.

When Serrano refused to hand over the password to his phone, the agents went through the 2014 silver pickup truck in great detail. They justified its seizure by saying they found “munitions of war” inside — five forgotten bullets, though no gun.

Serrano, 62, initially took a gun, for which he has a permit, but a Mexican cousin warned him not to bring it into Mexico. He ditched the weapon, but forgot about the few bullets the agents eventually found.

A one-time Republican candidate for Congress, Serrano recalled being surprised at his treatment at the border in September 2015.

“I deleted the photos, but I’m not giving you my phone,” Serrano said.

Told to park the truck, he said, he complained a bit before one agent reached into the pickup, opened the door, unfastened Serrano’s seat belt and yanked him out of the vehicle.

Gerardo Serrano outside the Supreme Court building in Washington. (Institute for Justice via AP)

“I got rights, I got constitutional rights and he snaps back at me, ‘You don’t have no rights here. I’m sick and tired of hearing about your rights.’ That took me aback,” Serrano said.

He was handcuffed and held for several hours, refusing to unlock the phone or answer any questions. Eventually, he was told he could go, but without his truck.

“I said, ‘How am I going to get home?’ There’s this smirk I can’t forget. ‘We don’t care how you get home,’” Serrano said.

He left the border station on foot, called a relative who lived nearby and hung around the area for several weeks, hoping to reclaim the pickup truck. Serrano finally rented a car and returned home. He continued to make $673 monthly payments on the seized truck.

Serrano might get some support from at least one justice. While an appeals court judge in New York, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote an opinion requiring New York City to hold prompt hearings when police seized cars. “It is this intermediate deprivation, lasting months or sometimes years without any prompt hearing before a neutral fact-finder, that we deem constitutionally infirm,” Sotomayor wrote in 2002.

The Supreme Court took up the issue of whether governments must hold a reasonably quick hearing following a seizure once before, in a case from Chicago in 2009. But the court dismissed the case because the seized vehicles all had been returned by the time the case was argued.

The Biden administration is urging the court to reject the case, saying there was nothing wrong with the initial seizure of the pickup and arguing that Serrano’s claims ended when the vehicle was returned to him.

But Serrano’s lawyers contend that the court should confront the issue because otherwise governments will continue to hold property for long periods and return it only to evade a judge’s review.

“The rampant due process violations associated with modern civil forfeiture warrant review,” they said in a high-court filing.

Serrano did get to see his aunt on the 2015 trip. Cousins drove across the border and took him to her. “When I went back home, three days later they called me and said she died,” he said.

 

80 COMMENTS

  1. The case is not moot just because by the Long time it takes to wind all the way to SCOTUS the State finally gave the truck back. There is a real deprivation of life by effectively stealing private property, and real financial loss created when the victim has to pay for a vehicle they cannot use plus acquiring a replacement vehicle for transportation while the State deprives them of their property

    • The fact that it is technically-moot is irrelevant, and the SCOTUS may take it up.

      (At least, I hope they do, and address civil forfeiture in general while they are at it. It will get support from both sides if they do so.)…

    • Yeah, the fact that he can put a dollar amount on his damages is pretty good. Hard to declare something moot when you have receipts. Paying for a truck he couldn’t use, paying for a rental, maybe paying for temporary lodgings, potential loss of income, and i’d tack on a per-diem in line with the GAO rates for the area at the time, plus interest. If they eventually released his truck with no charges, it was most likely not involved in a crime. They weren’t holding it for evidence pending trial, they were just holding it because they thought they could steal it from him and get away with it. I wonder how much damage and many miles they put on it… which could factor in as additional loss due to vehicle depreciation.
      I went through something similar with a pistol on a university campus – they thought they were going to charge me and have an easy time railroading me, because who on a campus is really going to fight over gun laws, right? 2 lawyers, ~11 months, 4 court appearances, 1 dropped case, and 1 angry letter from the judge over property withheld without reason got me my pistol back. And It was only a $200 keltec 😀
      Some of us conservative folks of latino descent are very much the wrong people for leo to pick on.

      • Good for you! I seriously get angry when I read about property forfeiture, especially in cases like yours and in cases like the one in the blog above. There needs to be some serious reform. I am glad that yours worked out. The only better outcome would be some punitive damages awarded to you.

        • I never pursued damages. The lawyers gave me a good deal on the defense… but going on offense would have been full rate representation with a very low chance of success.
          There are other aspects to it that may have worked in my favor, but i was still at the university and there was only so much boat-rocking i was comfortable with. During those years, i saw the courts, including the state supreme, being fairly hostile to other pro-2A cases, and I decided to just let it be.

    • In cases of “voluntary cessation” the court does not consider the case moot, even if the original cause of action no longer exists, precisely because to do otherwise would be to allow the offending party to continue the action at issue forever, backing down only when a ruling against them seems imminent.

      This is why New York City colluded with the state in the case the Supreme Court heard last year. Simply changing city law wasn’t enough, because they could always change it back, so they had the state make a just slightly different version of the city law with a prohibition on the city making a more strict version. This was all done simply to evade the Supreme Court hearing the case, and it worked.

    • He should have just drove across an empty span. Then he’d get all the rights, free healthcare plus a $15k check.

    • So, in your estimation, an imaginary line in the sand is all it takes for someone to have to forfeit all of their human rights? Do you happen to work for the Biden administration?

      • This thieving behavior at the border isn’t even partisan. It’s been happening at least since the Patriot Act. They can search your phone, your laptop, memory cards from your camera, the works. Your property can be taken from you on the thinnest and most made up of reasons.

        You have all your rights crossing your own border, but expect them to be denied and trampled upon if they feel like doing so.

      • How many of your human rights do you think you will have if you cross the border into Mexico? Or North Korea? Or even Israel?

      • You have no human right to import or export guns or ammo. Nor do you have the right not to declare the items to Customs.

      • Coming or going he’s an American citizen being maltreated by American law enforcement. I understand there is case law on the side of the bad cops, but that doesn’t excuse the wrong of it.

    • What Commie glue have you been sniffing? If you are a US citizen you have rights, period. He should be financially compensated and the agents should be punished.

      • Agreed. Problem is it has not been true in practice for some years. I used to travel quite a lot for my work and over the years I’ve seen how it’s changed. Doesn’t matter anymore if you were born here, if a US Customs & Border Enforcement officer feels like it all he needs is for you to decline to do as you are told. From that point, you are pretty much at their mercy. They will seize your money, your vehicle, you electronic devices, whatever they want and good luck getting it back.

        There is nothing certain about being an American citizen crossing your own border into or out of the country, not in a long time.

      • If our rights come from God by virtue of being human and the constitution only recognizes that fact, isn’t everybody entitled to those rights within our borders, regardless of their citizenship status?

        • “isn’t everybody entitled to those rights within our borders, regardless of their citizenship status?”

          Why yes, you are right.

          When those poor folks come across the border seeking asylum, the moment their feet hit US soil they receive all the rights God grants everyone because this is the USA.

          That includes a court hearing on their immigration status, as well as freedom of movement and association.

          Unless you believe that foreigners are detested by God that he did not grant them same rights as white Americans…

        • No. Preamble to the Constitution reads We the People of the United States. Everyone has basic human rights but the protections of the Constitution were meant for US citizens.

        • “No. Preamble to the Constitution reads We the People of the United States”

          That’s correct, it does not say we the citizens of the United States, but rather specifically uses the word ‘people’, meaning all people in the United States enjoy these God-given rights, including the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances (meaning a hearing on their asylum claim) as well as freedom of movement and freedom of association.

          Unless you’re suggesting the brown people from across the border aren’t really people..

        • @miner49, why do you idiots always make it about race? We’re sitting here discussing an article about a man named Serrano (implying he’s a “brown man”), who has relatives in Mexico (also, implying he’s a ”brown man”), and how it’s BS that American law enforcement can treat an “American citizen” (key words here) like that. We don’t care what color he is, you do. Apparently…
          Race baiters like you are why this country is torn. Go back to your basement you little commiesucker 🙄

        • “American citizen” (key words here)“

          You know, I can’t find that phrase in my copy of the bill of rights, would you please direct me to that particular reference…

    • Not if you are an American citizen. This is exactly why the BOR was put into place. More proof this country has lost its mind.

  2. This is like the NYSPRA case where NYC dropped stuff to avoid judicial review. Extremely scummy and extremely weak kneed of the Judiciary to let them be that scummy.

  3. Taking the property of criminals and drug lords is a great idea that has been massively abused at every level. It is theft under color of law and officers who partake of this sort of theft should themselves be in prison as the thieves they are.

    The authority of border guards to search your phone or laptop or any sort of electronic device is another outrage. Especially so as it has stood up in court. Nothing should be searchable without a warrant or clear indication of a crime. Five loose rounds of ammo is perfectly legal.

    Unless they’ve moved the southern border up to New Jersey???

    US Customs & Border Protection should be forced to pay for the man’s truck. Take it out of the officer’s pockets, that would be accountability for trampling upon a citizen’s rights!

    • yeah, you mouth breather..
      .. my taxes should go to some mexican WHO ISN’T AN AMERICAN, HE’S A FOREIGNER…
      ENUF IS RIGHT….ENUF OF YOU, YOU PO S

      • Did you miss the part about the carry permit? Serrano is an American.

        I’m assuming he is a “Mexican-American”, but, since hyphenating is all the rage, you just proved that you’re a Retard-American…. well, the prefix, at least. I don’t have enough facts to make assumptions about your nationality.

        • I doubt he cares about Serrano being an American, a citizen, a former candidate for Congress, a Republican who ran on a Second Amendment platform.

          All he cares about is being a dumbass.

      • Tiger, it my be a crime in Mexico, just as the gun which was legally possessed in the US would be a crime in Mexico, but all this shit went on with *US* customs, not Mexico, he did nothing illegal.

        • Tiger, why is taking pictures on your cell phone a cause for ANY response from law enforcement? Is it illegal to take pictures on your cell in Texas now? “Sir, you’re not allowed to take pictures of this wide open, barren land. It must be a nefarious plot to blow up that cactus over there! Let me see your phone or I will take your $40K truck!”
          What a crock of horse manure!

  4. The lesson here is to keep your skinny ass out of Mexico and points south. And keep the we*baks from coming in. Mines, mortars and machine guns work.

    • Don’t forget the border control zone extends to about 100 miles from the actual border. You can be stopped and searched anywhere within that zone.

      • “Don’t forget the border control zone extends to about 100 miles from the actual border.”

        Every square inch of Florida is a ‘Border Zone’…

        • They have one border agent to cover 3 or 4 counties most of anywhere outside of Miami Dade, Tampa Bay, and Orlando. I think I see one marked border patrol truck on I75 per year, maybe.

        • Shame they don’t patrol Clearwater FL. Most of inhabitants are from another planet.

    • Gunny, Biden is one of those who advocate for no fence, just drones. I am on the fence about that proposal, at least until I hear more about whether we’re talking 20 mm Vulcans, or just 7.62 miniguns. Plus, I’ve seen guncamera films from Warthogs at night tagging walkers with the 30 mm at 2 1/2 miles, with just a short burst. That would be fine, and releasing all films every week would help mama understand what happened with Junior, so she wouldn’t be waiting for that invitation north.

  5. SOTUS no longer cares about this mans rights or any other ‘rights’ in the Constitution. The Justices care about being invited, and treated well, at the A-list dinner parties of the left. Their wives want positive articles written in the NYT or WaPo about their husbands.

  6. Unless the “bullets” were in the 20mm range, the cops should be charged with falsifying a report for calling them “munitions of war.”

    Highly indicative of their bad faith.

  7. He was lucky he got caught on the American side of the border with the ammo. The Mexicans would have put him in prison.

    “Foreign citizens crossing the border to Mexico face arrest if carrying firearms or ammunition even if they legally possess them in the U.S. and routinely keep a firearm in their vehicle.”

    “Mexico laws on possession and importation of firearms and ammunition are extremely rigid and do not allow citizens possession/importation/transportation of firearms and ammunition. These laws are enforced at border crossing, custom searches, military checkpoints, and on highways. firearms ammunition illegal in mexico”

    “It is It is illegal and considered a crime to enter Mexico with a firearm or ammunition without a permit issued prior to crossing from Mexico’s Secretaria Nacional de la Defensa (SEDENA). Mexico’s Custom agents at the border do not issue gun permits and anyone entering the country with a firearm or ammunition without a permit could face detention, paying high fines, taking away the firearms and vehicle and up to five years of prison”

    “Before your road trip to Mexico, check your vehicle thoroughly, make sure you are not taking firearms used for hunting, personal guns, stray shell from your last hunting trip or ammunition of any kind. Vehicles are subject to inspection by custom officials, and if they find any, even if it was unintentionally, you could be charged with a crime. Mexico has no-tolerance when taking in firearms in to the country. If you are already at the border waiting to go cross and find out you have the firearm you routinely keep in your vehicle, take the last exit or turn-around before crossing the border, avoid fines, complications and a bad experience”

    https://www.sanborns.com/blog/firearms-and-ammunition-in-mexico.aspx

  8. It seems the good people are often the ones who end up being victims of retarded cops, while hordes of illegal invaders are demanding their free stuff, the BLM are looting, and the antifa parasites can do whatever they want in downtown Seattle and Portland.

  9. Any power you give government can and will be abused, sooner rather than later. I hope a ruling curbing “civil asset forfeiture” is forthcoming but I won’t hold my breath. Too many instances of confiscated guns never being returned to their owners, or being returned sans optics – not a big enough deal to sue over, so no one ever does. An entire truck being stolen with no probable cause of a crime OTOH, and is a perfect case to make an example of the officers and the abuse of the forfeiture system as a whole.

  10. I’m hoping someone can help me to understand what this means:

    “Serrano, 62, initially took a gun, for which he has a permit, but a Mexican cousin warned him not to bring it into Mexico. He ditched the weapon, but forgot about the few bullets the agents eventually found.“

    He “initially took a gun” but “ditched the weapon”?

    The story says he drove from Kentucky to Texas, did he indeed carry a gun through each of the intervening states, and then “ditch it” somewhere along the way?

    • Sounds like it, did you think there was something wrong with that? I was once on a road trip through about 20 states, considered a quick detour through Canada sightseeing, but had no place to ditch several guns so skipped it. All would be legal until he carried his gun into Mexico, then if caught he would be imprisoned until he or representatives paid off the government officials involved. No sign of justice, all corruption. But I have REGULARLY carried more than one loaded gun from Texas to Virginia and back, over the past 15-20 years, what is difficult for you to understand? OH! And I totalled a car in FL once, cop helped me figure what to do with 3 different loaded guns while we procured a rental. No problem.

      • He “ditched it”?

        That is an interesting turn of phrase, just exactly what action did he take and why was it described in such a manner?

  11. Sounds like a REAL EXPENSIVE lawsuit against LAW Enforcement. I BELIEVE in Law Enforcement but NOT UNLAWFUL seizure! His RIGHTS were VIOLATED. One Enlightened Patriot. Team Trump And His Allies 2020 – MAGA (WE’RE NOT going away!).

  12. “Since 2000, governments have acquired at least $68.8 billion in forfeited property,…”

    Nazi Germany, Communist China, Socialist Venezuela, all rolled into one.
    And yet, illegal aliens are dying trying to get here.

    Gotta be the weirdest thing I have ever seen….

    Oh, wait a minute, I keep forgetting that the same government that steals our stuff, gives money away to these illegals to make sure they get here.

    It won’t be long that your house will be another seized asset. After all, we gotta house all those illegals. Why? Oh you know, because “feelings”….

  13. Reading in the news today the Republican dominated Supreme Court has refused to review this case and let stand the lower court decision dismissing the plaintiffs suit.

    That’s what you get with a conservative controlled Supreme Court…

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