Suit filed over wire transfers

Arizona Republic/Dennis Wagner/[[October 19, 2006]]/ link

An immigrant rights group is spearheading a class-action suit filed Wednesday against Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, alleging that his office illegally seized millions of dollars in Western Union wires as part of its campaign to shut down money laundering by border smugglers.

The U.S. District Court complaint, lodged in Phoenix by three Western Union customers, claims Goddard's bid to intercept so-called coyote fees violates the Fourth Amendment and due-process rights of thousands of innocent people whose funds were frozen.

The plaintiffs "and others similarly situated" are sponsored by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, or ICIRR, in coordination with Chicago-based Instituto del Progreso Latino. Josh Hoyt, executive director of the coalition, said Goddard has used "sweeping warrants" to seize more than $12 million in wire transactions based on a broad criminal profile, rather than any probable cause.

...Goddard said there is no substance to the suit, and he believes it was prompted by Western Union because his assault on smuggling organizations has cut into company revenues. Western Union recently filed a separate action in Maricopa County Superior Court, obtaining a temporary order to stop the attorney general's seizures. Goddard said the company also sent letters to clients, asking those who had funds seized to contact Instituto del Progreso Latino.

...Sherry Johnson, corporate director of media relations for Western Union, said in an e-mail that "while we do have a long-standing relationship with this group, I can assure you that this is a completely independent action by the ICIRR."

...Matt Piers, attorney for the plaintiffs, said more than 450 complaints have been received to date. He said undocumented immigrants often send money via Western Union for legitimate purposes but are too fearful to challenge seizures by law enforcement. "They are not going to be on the phone with a police officer," Piers said.

...Goddard said his investigators carefully target wires based on criminal profiling and are not taking funds sent innocently by illegal immigrants. He said he asked Piers to identify people whose money was confiscated wrongly but got no response.