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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – Jerry Johnson did what is legal to do last summer. He hopped on a flight at Charlotte Douglas International and took cash with him. That’s when the trouble began.

The owner of Charlotte trucking company Triple J Logistics says nearly $40,000 in cash was seized from him at the airport even though he did nothing wrong and wasn’t charged with a crime.

“I definitely don’t think it was fair,” said Johnson. “It’s very upsetting that people can just steal your money.”

Johnson flew to Phoenix last August to buy a third tractor trailer for his small company. Shuffling through ads, he tells FOX 46 in an exclusive interview, that he planned to attend an auto auction.  

“They’re very competitive,” he said of auto auctions. “Thousands of people go there. It’s basically you bring your cash and put a deposit down.”

Johnson transported water and toilet paper during the pandemic. He currently has two employees and is looking to expand his operation. When he landed in Phoenix, he says an undercover officer approached him in baggage claim and asked if he had any money or drugs on him. He says he was then interrogated.

“He told me if I didn’t sign that paper he’s going to arrest me,” Johnson said he was told. “He was going to take that money because he thought I was part of a money laundering operation.”

“Did he have any evidence that you are?,” asked FOX 46 reporter Matt Grant.

“He didn’t present any to me,” he said, insisting he did nothing wrong.

Records show Johnson signed away $39,500 even though he was never charged with a crime. The report, filled out by an officer, says Johnson stated he “borrowed the money from several people” and “stated the money did not belong to him.”

“Unfortunately, what happened to Jerry is common nationally,” said Paul Avelar, a manging attorney with the non-profit law firm Institute for Justice, which is fighting to get Johnson’s money back.

It is not illegal to carry cash. Avelar says if authorities suspected Johnson of committing a crime they should have taken him to court.

“If the government suspects that Jerry was involved with money laundering, they can seize his money as evidence and maybe they can even seize it for future forfeiture,” said Avelar. “But then they actually have to show that he was involved in a crime. And there’s only one way to do that in this country and that’s through a criminal trial and a criminal conviction and of course none of that that has happened here.”

Johnson previously served six years in prison for cocaine possession and intent to distribute. He was arrested again in 2012 for marijuana possession.

He says he has turned his life around and in 2015 opened his own trucking company.

Phoenix police did not respond to a request for comment. Johnson’s money has not been returned even though he was never charged with a crime.

FOX 46 has reported on civil forfeiture cases before including other instances where passengers have had money seized at airports by the TSA and DEA, which views traveling with large sums of cash as suspicious.

The Institute for Justice has filed a class action lawsuit against both agencies. They want to stop this practice, calling it unconstitutional.

A judge has now ruled that the case can move forward in federal court, despite the TSA and DEA tying to have the case dismissed.

The TSA previously did not respond to a request seeking comment.

“The Drug Enforcement Administration does not have a comment at this time because the case is still being litigated,” a DEA spokesperson previously told FOX 46.

FOX 46 asked if the agency could comment generally about the practice of seizing money and if cash can be taken without probable cause of a crime. The DEA again insisted it could not comment due to ongoing litigation.

Money seized goes into a federal forfeiture fund which can be used for any law enforcement purpose. The Institute for Justice says that creates a “perverse incentive” to collect the cash.

“We’re trying to shut this down,” said IJ senior attorney Dan Alban. “Because the government should not be treating travelers like ATMs.”