Maricopa County judge rules trucker who had $39K seized can get interest

The owner of a trucking company who had his money seized in Phoenix in 2020 is thrilled about getting more cash but is frustrated the case got to this point.
Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 4:11 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — The North Carolina trucking company owner who had more than $39,500 seized at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in 2020, even though he wasn’t charged with anything, scored another legal win on Thursday, which means more money for him. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner dismissed the forfeiture case against Jerry Johnson with prejudice, which means it can’t be filed again, according to a press release from Johnson’s attorney. Warner also reaffirmed Johnson can keep his money, but he is also owed 9% interest plus money for his attorneys’ fees. “I’m so happy to finally have this case dismissed, to get my money back, and to receive interest for the years that the government refused to return my money without proving I did anything wrong. And I am also eager to get back the money I paid out of pocket for my first attorney,” Johnson said in the statement. “I can now invest this money in my business so I can continue to grow it to provide for myself and my family.”

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It’s been a long road for Johnson to get his $39,500 back. He owns Triple J Logistics, a trucking company based out of Charlotte. He flew into Sky Harbor Airport in August 2020 with the cash to buy a truck at an auction. After landing, an undercover Phoenix Police officer stopped him near the baggage claim and questioned him. The money was seized, but Johnson was let go.

Phoenix Police said at the time, Jonson told them the money belonged to several different people and they had “received additional information related to him.” Johnson said the money was saved from his business, and the other part was a loan from a family member. He had two past drug charges long before he owned the trucking company.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge then ruled Johnson failed to prove he owned the cash and failed to prove it wasn’t connected to any crimes. However, Johnson was never charged. “They never brought criminal charges. They never introduced any evidence that Jerry’s money was connected to criminal activity. And Jerry’s been without operating expenses for his business for over two and a half years,” IJ senior attorney Dan Alban said.

Johnson said without his money or the truck he had planned to buy with it, he’s had to turn down business opportunities. The Institute for Justice reports it took over Johnson’s case on appeal, and in May 2022, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that the lower court’s ruling violated his right to due process. Johnson’s case was ultimately successfully appealed. The state returned the $39,500 but didn’t agree to pay the attorneys’ fees and interest. But now Warner is forcing the state to do exactly that. “We’re ecstatic that Jerry has been awarded interest for the time he was left without the operating expenses for his business,” Alban said in the press release. “It’s outrageous that Jerry had to wait this long to get his own hard-earned money back, but this shows just how unjust the entire civil forfeiture system is. Even when a property owner ultimately wins their case, it takes years of litigation to get their property back, and the government fights to avoid any responsibility for making them whole after upending their life.”

Less than a year after his money was seized, the Arizona Legislature changed its civil forfeiture laws. “No one in Arizona will have to prove their own innocence to contest a forfeiture going forward,” said Alban. But he says that’s not enough and that moving forward, civil forfeiture needs to be eliminated. “When innocent people like Jerry can be treated the way they were and the only remedy is he gets 9% interest and some attorneys’ fees, that’s really not adequate for the amount of disruption to his life, the amount of financial hardship they put him through,” Alban said.

As for Johnson, he’s trying to focus on his future. That includes not bringing large quantities of cash onto a plane. “I just don’t want to get caught up in another three-year battle battling for something that I know is mine,” he said. Johnson said right now, it’s not financially possible for him to get that freight truck he was trying to buy in 2020. But Thursday’s ruling means his grandson will have an extra special birthday in June.

Arizona’s Family reached out to the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for their reactions to Warner’s decision. We never heard back from either.