Filmmaker Got Back His $69,000 ‘Stolen’ by DEA Agent, Plus a $15,000 Settlement
by Harold Hempstead
In August 2021, the U.S. Government agreed to pay Keddins Etiennes, an independent filmmaker, a $15,000 settlement, in addition to the approximately $69,000 they previously returned to Etiennes, that DEA Agent Antonio LoGrande unlawfully seized from him.
On January 7, 2020, a Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) officer at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, detained Etiennes at a TSA checkpoint and called LoGrande to the checkpoint, after Etiennes told the officer that he had about $69,000 in an old broken Xbox in his carry-on bag.
The money was for expenses for two film projects that Etiennes was flying to California to work on. It was hidden in the Xbox because his work took him to “shady places,” and he did not want to be robbed.
Etiennes “showed the TSA his website and gave LoGrande the phone numbers of two people … who could vouch for him and confirm that low-budget filmmakers often travel with cash to cover their expenses.”
But LoGrande indicated that he was not satisfied by the explanation offered by Etiennes, so he seized the $69,000.
Etiennes retained Hollywood attorney, John Corbett, and after months of negotiations, the U.S. Government agreed to return 90% of the cash seized. Corbett declined the offer and insisted that all of the money be returned.
The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) also tried to intimidate Etiennes by investigating his bank records and saying they discovered evidence of “structuring,” which is considered a federal crime involving deliberately evading the reporting requirements of banks by making cash withdrawals or deposits of less than $10,000.
Etiennes knew he was innocent of the structuring allegation and that the DOJ was trying to intimidate him into agreeing to a partial return of the money.
About two weeks prior to the deadline for filing a forfeiture claim against Etiennes, the DOJ agreed to return all of his money.
In February 2021, Corbett filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, against the U.S. Government, and sued LoGrande and the unnamed TSA officer for violating Etiennes Fourth Amendment rights. The complaint explained how the TSA officer unlawfully detained Etiennes and continued searching his property “even after it was clear that it could not possibly constitute a threat to aviation security.” The complaint also explained how LoGrande detained Etiennes “without reasonable suspicion or probable cause” and then seized his money “without probable cause to believe that it was related to criminality in any way.”
In August 2021, the U.S. Government agreed to pay $15,000 to settle Etiennes’ lawsuit.
After his experience, Etiennes learned about other people who have been victimized like him, including Terrence Rolin, “who lost his life savings—$82,373—to a DEA seizure.” He also ultimately got his money back, “but only after the Institute for Justice publicized the outrageous details of his case.” The organization also filed a class action lawsuit “on behalf of travelers whose money was seized by the DEA based on the same presumption that Etiennes confronted.”
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