A Kentucky man is suing for repossession of this truck, which was seized from him by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in 2015.
On September 21, 2015, agents seized Gerardo Serrano’s truck at Texas’s Eagle Pass border crossing. Serrano was driving from his home in Kentucky to Piedras Negras, Mexico when agents found a small ammunition magazine which held five bullets.
Customs seized Serrano’s truck under so called civil asset forfeiture, laws that allow agents to take property from citizens if they’re merely suspected of a crime. Serrano was never charged with a crime, but authorities say no charge is necessary.
The Washington Post reports:
Supporters call civil forfeiture a valuable crime fighting tool that allows authorities to take criminals’ ill-gotten gains and put them to good use. Critics, like Serrano, contend the practice is an invitation to abuse that ensnares thousands of innocent citizens each year.
[…] According to Serrano’s lawsuit, as he tried to explain himself, one of the agents unlocked Serrano’s door, unbuckled his seat belt, and yanked him out of the car.
“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Serrano told The Post. “So I say ‘listen, you can’t yank me out like that, I’m an American, you can’t do that to me.’”
The agent took his phone, and demanded Serrano give him the passcode.
Serrano recalls he told the agent to “go get a warrant.”
By this time, other agents had started searching his truck. “I said, ‘Hey listen I have rights, you’re violating my rights, you’re not supposed to do that kind of stuff,’” Serrano recounted.
“I’m sick of hearing about your rights,” the agent said, according to Serrano’s lawsuit. “You have no rights here.”
The agents were angry with the man because they saw that Serrano had taken pictures with his phone. So angry, in fact, that they made the baseless claim that “you have no rights here.”
That alone, discredits them as capable of professionally handling civil forfeiture as “a valuable crime fighting tool” and shows that they’ve happily accepted it as an “invitation to abuse.”
According to the lawsuit, when an agent found five bullets in Serrano’s truck, he yelled “We got him.”
Serrano owned the bullets legally. A registered Republican, Serrano identifies himself as a civil libertarian who, according to BallotPedia, unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 2014. Second Amendment rights were a core focus of his campaign.
Civilian gun ownership is illegal in most cases in Mexico, however, where Serrano planned to visit his cousin. But the fact of the case is that he was arrested inside the United States, not in Mexico.
The Washington Post continues:
Serrano had planned to take his pistol on the trip, but he left it home at the strong urging of his cousin, who explained the potential consequences of bringing it to Mexico. But he didn’t realize the extra ammunition clip, containing five .380 caliber rounds, was still in the center console of his truck.
At the crossing, the CBP agents put Serrano in handcuffs and continued to ask him to give up the passcode.
“You go get that warrant,” Serrano says he told them. “I’ll wait for you in jail.”
Serrano didn’t believe that any judge would grant a warrant to search a phone for taking pictures at the border. He says he was trying to call what he believed to be the agents’ bluff. “A lot of people don’t understand basic civil rights,” he said.
For Serrano, there was also the principle of the whole thing.
“I ran for office here in Kentucky,” Serrano said. “I ran on principles of the Constitution and my rights. Everyone knows me as a Second Amendment guy. It would be hypocritical of me to talk one way in my home state and then give [CBP] what [they] want. I have to stand by my principles.”
The agents eventually placed Serrano in a locked cell without food, water or a toilet, Serrano says. Periodically someone would come in and ask for the passcode to his phone, he says. He refused every time.
When Serrano was released agents told him he wasn’t being arrested or charged with a crime, but was informed that the Federal Government had taken possession of his vehicle and the ammunition clip.
Two years later, Serrano is still fighting to get his truck back.
Because Serrano had not told the agents that he had the small clip of bullets, they claimed that they suspected him of a crime, and had no need to prove it or charge him with anything to make the forfeiture.
Why would anyone, though, inform an agent that they had a bullet clip while being yelled at for taking a picture?
The fact that an agent told him “you have no rights,” alone, shows that Serrano had no reason to treat the situation like a professional and lawful affair. From that point forward, Serrano knew these were crooked people with no respect for the law.