After the DEA Stole $70,000 From This Filmmaker, He Got His Money Back, Plus a $15,000 Settlement

Keddins Etienne was aware that it was legal for large sums of money to be carried on a plane before a federal agent took nearly $70,000. He didn’t realize that the money could be taken by the government, who would assume it was connected to criminal activities, as per federal civil forfeiture laws.

This was the start of an sadly common story. But the end was more pleasant than the beginning. Etienne got all his money back with the support of a determined lawyer. It took him eight months to complete the task. After Jonathan Corbett filed a federal suit claiming that Etienne was unlawfully held and his money taken without probable cause by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Etienne received $15,000 more.

You Know How This Looks, Right?

Etienne was a 43 year-old independent filmmaker who had a Manhattan studio. He often carried cash to pay for his projects. This is a standard practice in the industry. His flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport was on January 7, 2020. He planned to be working on two projects in California: A documentary about forest fires and the effect on marijuana producers in Mendocino County. BrotherThis film is about a Japanese Gangster who fled to Los Angeles after his boss was killed fighting with another Yakuza clan. Etienne was already arranging interviews and had $69,000 to rent equipment and hire crew members.

Etienne claims that Etienne was working in “shady” places, so he kept the cash inside an old Xbox. He also carried his laptop bag. He says, “I did not want anybody to think that I was carrying any cash.” I was trying to hide the cash from all the suspects. Antonio LoGrande (DEA agent) stole the money from Etienne, arriving at the Transportation Security Administration TSA checkpoint. Etienne revealed the contents of the Xbox to a TSA officer.

Etienne was held for around an hour. He missed his flight from Paris to San Francisco. The loss of his cash put an end to his documentary. He said that he made it on another flight anyway, and at that point it was to “basically apologize to everybody and say, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’”

Because the TSA has the job of screening people and luggage for explosives or weapons, Etienne should be able to fly once the TSA had verified that there were no dangers in the gaming console. However, TSA agents have a history working with the DEA. They are more concerned about large amounts of cash and view them as suspicious.

LoGrande turns to Etienne and says, “You know how this looks, don’t you?” Etienne recalls. “I was like, “No, it doesn’t look like that.” He never said, “You are a drug dealer.” However, the meaning was obvious enough and LoGrande wasn’t satisfied with Etienne’s explanation as to why he had to have so much cash.

Etienne, a film producer for 20 years, gave LoGrande his website. He also provided LoGrande two numbers, one of his friends, and the other from his former boss. These phone numbers could be used to verify Etienne’s claims and prove that filmmakers on a low budget often carry cash with them. LoGrande wasn’t satisfied so Etienne left with a receipt issued by the DEA.

Etienne claims that, in hindsight, Steven Spielberg could have said, “Hey, we worked together.” I [still]I was willing to part with all my money on that day.”

“I Trust the Person with the Badge”

Etienne remarks that before meeting at JFK “I wasn’t in trouble” in any kind of way. “Here I am, being compliant. “I trust the badge-wielding person. It was so traumatic.”

Etienne was able to get his money back after the shock had subsided. He approached two criminal defense attorneys. Etienne was worried that Etienne might not have legal recourse because they both said that they didn’t handle these cases. He says, “I was at that point really scared.” “I am sweating bullets. A friend of Etienne’s introduced Corbett to him, an attorney from Hollywood who describes himself as a “professional troublemaker”. Corbett is an expert in civil rights and has challenged TSA screening processes repeatedly.

According to the “Notice of Seizure of Properties and Initiation of Administrative Forfeiture Proceedings” Etienne received after his trip to San Francisco failed, Etienne was required to file a petition to “remission” or “mitigation” with the DEA. It is this same agency which took Etienne’s cash. This is similar to asking a mugger for the item he just stole at gunpoint. Federal law permits agencies to seize property to increase their budgets. Corbett was not a supplicant. Etienne recalls that Corbett was basically saying “You took my client’s money illegally.”

Corbett and the DEA’s parent agency, U.S. Department of Justice had been in negotiations for several months via phone and email. Corbett states that Etienne was initially offered money by the government if Etienne gave up his right to any of the remaining funds. This kind of offer, called “mitigation”, is very common in civil forfeiture cases. It is particularly useful when there is little to no evidence the property taken was connected with illegal activity. Corbett remained firm even though Claire Kedeshian (an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York) stated that the government would return 90 percent Etienne’s money.

According to the agreement that Kedeshian offered in an email to Corbett on July 27, 2020, the “government will return 90% (i.e. $61,668) to claimant”) if the “claimant consents to the forfeiture by the government of 10% (6,852) cash seized.” Etienne would also have to give up any legal claims in connection with the seizing of cash. No dice, Corbett said. He argued that Etienne shouldn’t have to hand over any money because there wasn’t a legal basis.

The Justice Department began to look into Etienne’s bank records in an attempt to find evidence that could be used by it as a justification for keeping the cash. Etienne says, “I was shocked they could look at my bank account.” As a U.S. citizen I assumed that this was private. But, it was not. The can take any look they like and view whatever it is that interests them.

The Justice Department discovered that Etienne had previously made $8,000 payments to a company where he was renting studios. They were considered evidence of “structuring”, a federal crime which involves deliberately not reporting to banks by withdrawing or depositing less than $10,000. Etienne claims that this was considered “structuring” because it was a way for Etienne to make less than $10,000 in nefarious activities. However, if one examines the checks you will see that they belong all to an estate company.

It seemed that the structuring allegation was an attempt to give Corbett more leverage during negotiations. Etienne explained that they were using that threat to suggest that there was criminal activity. “They were trying to negotiate partial returns of my funds. They would be facing criminal charges if they didn’t. Corbett says that it is difficult for the government to say, “Just give us 10% of what you took, and we will return all the money. But this whole investigation that we are doing into your case is over.”

The Government Caves

Etienne declined Kedeshian’s offer despite all the pressure. Just two weeks before the expiration of the time limit for filing a forfeiture case, Etienne refused to accept the offer from Kedeshian. Corbett did not like the final resolution.

Corbett says, “It was quite long and this amount of money is not small to my client,” Corbett said. He said, “It was his company and his livelihood. It’s a bad idea to take someone’s 70 grand and keep it for just eight months. The guy was forced to live without money for 8 months. Illegally, he was stopped and searched. For his money to be returned, he was required to pay an attorney’s fee.”

Etienne says that because of the financial stress from the seizure, he had to give up on projects he might have otherwise taken up. Etienne says that he has lost a significant amount of the money. The program screwed up many things. A couple of projects I could not say no to, because he couldn’t afford the cost of flying. He was able to cover his expenses by using savings. He says that if it wasn’t for the “rainy-day” money, he would likely have to shut down his business. To make ends meet, I would have to take the job at Burger King.

Corbett believed Etienne should be compensated for his troubles and expenses. He filed a suit for Etienne in U.S. District Court Eastern District of New York’s favor last February. Etienne filed suit against the U.S. government in accordance with the Federal Tort Claims Act. LoGrande, the TSA officer who appeared to have tipped him off were also sued. These allegations were relied upon Bivens, Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics1971 Supreme Court Decision that allows federal officials who are accused of violating Constitution rights to sue.

Etienne claims that the TSA officer, who was not named, detained Etienne and continued to search his belongings even though it was obvious that the property could not be considered a danger to aviation security. The complaint stated that the TSA officer was trying to determine whether cash had been stolen. [might]The DEA may be interested in them.” LoGrande, according to the suit, also violated Fourth Amendment rights by placing Etienne in detention “without reasonable suspicion of probable cause” then seizing his funds “without probable cause to believe it was linked to criminality.”

Corbett said that the government presented LoGrande to U.S. District Judge Frederic Block. This legal doctrine protects people from being sued for violations of their constitutional rights if they are not in violation of “clearly-established” law. Corbett claims that “they were going to attempt and argue the large sum of money combined with concealment was enough for arguable probable causation.” I have never witnessed a case in which a substantial amount of money was hidden to be considered probable cause. That would not be possible, it seems to me. That’s absurd.

Corbett says Block told Corbett that Block had “made it plain that he was not happy with the government’s situation at all” as well as “basically telling the government they really want to think about settling.” The government reached a mediation agreement with Etienne in August. It agreed to pay Etienne $15,000 in addition to the $13,749 “legal fees” and “costs” that Block claimed he spent “defending against the abusive process against him.” Etienne was awarded that amount last month.

I’m Not Going to Travel with That Much Money

Etienne, who witnessed first-hand the way civil forfeiture allows cops to steal, says that he won’t travel with so much money anymore. His case was publicized to bring attention to civil forfeiture in order to encourage change.

Etienne discovered that civil forfeiture had happened to him in an incredibly similar manner. He mentions Terrence Rolin, a retired railroad engineer who lost his life savings—$82,373—to a DEA seizure after his daughter, whom he had charged with depositing the money in a joint bank account, took it with her while flying from Pittsburgh, where she was visiting him, to her home in Massachusetts.

Rolin was able to get his money back like Etienne. However, the Institute for Justice only made public the shocking details. This group has now filed a lawsuit in behalf of travellers whose funds were seized by DEA based upon the same presumption as Etienne faced at JFK.

Cases like Etienne show that government bullies using civil forfeiture laws in order to seize property allegedly tainted by crime from innocent persons tend to give up when confronted with resistance. However, legalized larceny targets are often too expensive and difficult to challenge.

Corbett wrote on his website, “I wonder how many innocent persons just don’t want to fight and loose some or all their money.” I would like to see the Department of Justice refocus on justice instead of running rackets.