- The car was seized under federal civil asset forfeiture law.
- Mississippi state law doesn’t apply to federal officers.
- “If I was Hertz, if I was Avis, they wouldn’t try to seize the car,” Munir says.
- The cost of hiring a lawyer would cost about as much as the car.
A middle-aged executive of a supply chain management company was driving a black Chevrolet Malibu west on the interstate on a hot evening in April when he caught the eye of a Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy.
The deputy allegedly clocked the sedan at going at least 8 mph above the speed limit, flicked on his blue lights, and pulled behind the black Malibu, which had Texas license plates.
According to court documents, the driver told the deputy he was only driving through Mississippi after going to Panama City, Florida, to visit his “girl.”
The driver was shaking, the deputy observed, and when he was ordered to get out of the car, the driver allegedly moved to tuck something between the car seat.
Eventually a police dog was called out, court documents say, and deputies found the following in the car:
- A variety of unknown pills
- Three loaded guns, including an AR-15 short barrel.
Authorities seized the contents as well as the black Malibu.
This all came as a shock to the man who actually owned the car, Manni Munir, a small-time rental car operator based in Houston, Texas.
Munir said he had no idea that this executive was allegedly involved in the interstate drug trade.
Little to no response from investigators
He said he offered his help to investigators. Each rental car has a GPS tracker that would show the exact location of a car over time — seemingly crucial information in any drug trafficking investigation.
But according to Munir, the investigators never asked for that GPS data. Instead, they took his property.
The car was seized under federal civil asset forfeiture law, which gives federal officers broad power in seizing property connected to drug crimes. In this case, it allowed the investigators to take his car without having to convict Munir of any crime or even accuse him of a crime.
Munir said he’s reached out to the investigators multiple times trying to get his car back, but has gotten little to no response.
It recently became harder in Mississippi for law enforcement officers to seize property. For many years, police could seize up to $20,000 worth of property without having to file anything in state court. As long as the property owner didn’t contest the seizure, it was all handled with some paperwork.
That power was quietly repealed in 2018. Police chiefs and sheriffs swarmed the Capitol in 2019, pushing for a bill that would restore that power, but the Legislature ultimately killed it.
Now, those seizure cases must be filed in state court.
This change was welcomed by advocates of criminal justice reform, but the state law does not apply to federal officers.
While it was deputies from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office who made the bust, one of the deputies is on a DEA task force, meaning the case is being handled federally.
The Hancock County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for an interview.
The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, which is handling this prosecution, declined to comment and directed the Clarion Ledger to the DEA.
DEA spokeswoman Debbie Webber declined to comment, other than to say that seizing cars in a drug trafficking case like this is normal.
The supply chain management executive, Rohith Mathew, was charged in federal court with drug and gun offenses. His attorney declined to comment.
Suspect ‘a giant nerd’
The car — which Munir said he bought for $7,500 a few years ago — is a big loss for his relatively small operation, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
He has filed paperwork to contest the seizure, meaning the matter will go court, but Munir doesn’t know what he’ll do when that happens. Munir wants to hire an attorney, but a lawyer told him it could cost $5,000 or more to fight.
“If I was Hertz, if I was Avis, they wouldn’t try to seize the car,” Munir said. “… This is a huge hit.”
Munir runs a rental service that caters to people visiting Houston for surgery and other medical procedures. People come to Houston from across the country and around the world for medical treatment, Munir said, and he sets them up with short-term housing and a car. He said he has about two dozen cars — “enough to give me headaches.”
Munir said he had never met Mathew before renting him the black Malibu. According to Munir, a background check came back clean and he got a copy of his Mathew’s driver’s license.
“He’s a nerd, right? Like a giant nerd,” Munir said, recalling Mathew. “Very chatty, very friendly.”
Munir didn’t notice what a sheriff’s deputy later claimed to see: track marks on his arm.
After Mathew was late returning the car, Munir said he pulled up the GPS tracking information and his “heart sank.”
Car wasn’t supposed to leave the state of Texas
The rental car wasn’t supposed to leave the state of Texas, Munir said, but the GPS tracker showed it within the fencing of the Hancock County Jail.
“As soon as I saw it was parked next to the county jail, I said, ‘Oh, my God. What happened?'” Munir recalled.
Munir said he reached out to the sheriff’s office and had a brief conversation with Deputy Fred Eagan, the DEA task force member. Eagan did not respond to a request for an interview.
According to Munir, Eagan gave him an overview of the case and told him the car was being seized.
“I explain to him, ‘Look, I don’t know anything,” Munir said.
Eagan said it was up to the DEA now, Munir said, and Munir has had no luck getting a hold of anyone at the federal agency.
Munir said he knows investigators are aware of the GPS tracker, because he got an alert that it had been tampered with.
According to Munir, it’s unclear if the investigators could access the GPS data without his login information.
“I’d happily share all that information if that would help them prove their case — where he went, what he did,” Munir said, but they haven’t asked.
The only communication he’s gotten from the DEA is the notice that the agency is seizing his Malibu.
“To me, it must be obvious. It’s a rental. It’s registered to an LLC’s name,” Munir said. “…What is the accusation? If the accusation is that I’m involved, then the burden should be on them to prove it.”