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Civil Forfeiture Laws: Fight for your right to keep your cash

Written By: Christine Dantz

June 2015

A countless number of law-abiding American's lose thousands of their legally acquired cash dollars because of faulty civil forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement to walk away with it. The law began with good intention—to prevent people from profiting from their crimes reduces crime. Nonetheless, any good intention is lost when the agencies who confiscated the property don't return it to the innocent—because the accused then become the victims.

What is "Civil Forfeiture?"

Civil forfeiture is an oxymoron because there's nothing 'courteous and polite' about it. City, state, and federal authorities use the legal term to seize any citizen's tangible assets. That includes items such as cash and larger assets such as motor vehicles, furniture, jewelry, or anything that doesn't exceed $500,000 in value. (let's be honest, that is a long list of potential 'assets.')

Back in the USA News Story: Civil Forfeiture Laws: Fight for your right to keep your cash.

Charles Clarke (Photo courtesy Institute for Justice)

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's website, there are two types of forfeiture that fall into this category.

  • Civil judicial forfeiture is a direct action against the property in a court of law and criminal charges are not required against the property's owner (Which is strange if you think about the fact that the majority of the property seized is inanimate and how many zoo animals or family pets' do law enforcement agencies collect?)
  • Administrative forfeiture comes from the Tariff Act of 1930, which allows Federal agencies to take tangible property from American citizens without a court order—or charge—or arrest. All the agency needs to do is suspect the seized property was used in the import, transport, sale of a controlled substance. (Remember, marijuana is still labeled as a controlled substance by the Federal government.)

If you thought this was bad, this was just what governs federal civil forfeiture laws, most state and local law enforcement agencies have their own set of rules for forfeiture.

Back in the USA News Story: Civil Forfeiture Laws: Fight for your right to keep your cash.

Charles, a 24-year-old college student, was flying home after visiting family and friends in Cincinnati, when he lost his entire life savings to civil forfeiture

Consider the most recent story of civil forfeiture that's made the news. Charles Clarke, a student traveling from Kentucky to Florida, didn't make it through the Kentucky airport because the $11,000 cash he had on him became the subject of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The airport detective and DEA agents used the money as probable cause to use drug dogs, which smelled the scent of marijuana.

Although they didn't find any drugs or drug residue, the scent alone was enough for the DEA to seize the cash.



Clarke admits to smoking a marijuana joint on the way to the airport, but insists the money confiscated in February 2014 came from all legal avenues, including earned wages, financial aid, and gifts from family members. He is still fighting to get his money back, but luckily for Clarke, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit group, took his case this month and is fighting alongside him to reclaim that money. IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty explains,

"Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Charles. Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs."

America is trying to change these laws, many states are aware of the fine line they are walking and making amends. Only two states have reformed their asset forfeiture laws enough to make the high grade, while the remaining 48 aren't complete losers, they are still close to scraping the bottom.

On a brighter note, if Clarke is looking for positive outcomes, a recent case that went to court in Virginia put the power back into the hands of an ordinary citizen.
Staunton, Virginia restaurant owner, Mandrel Stuart, lost his restaurant in 2012 after police officers in Fairfax, VA stopped Mandrel for a simple traffic infraction and confiscated the $17,550 cash that he was carrying to purchase supplies. After drug dogs smelled narcotics in Mandrel's car, they searched the vehicle and found the cash along with .01 grams of marijuana. This allowed the police to seize the cash under current forfeiture laws.

Unlike Clarke, Stuart didn't admit to any drug use, but that doesn't mean he's lying. Almost 90 percent of all currency in the U.S. tests positive for traces of narcotics. Just think if you know this, then most law enforcement officers do too, which makes forfeitures based on narcotics a slam-dunk 90 percent of the time!

Stuart hired a lawyer and fought the charges, prompting the government to offer a settlement that would return half of the money to him. He rejected the deal and went to court, where he won and the government had to pay him his money plus his lawyer fees.



Nevertheless, this should have never happened, but because the burden of proof was on Stuart, he didn't stand a chance without legal representation. Not all Americans are lucky enough to secure a lawyer and without a charge, they aren't provided a lawyer if they cannot afford one, leaving most to surrender all cash and hope to the agency that confiscated the money.

Asset Sharing

One hand washes the other in civil forfeiture cases. The federal forfeiture law allows for asset sharing between seizures made by federal and state governments, as well as some foreign countries—and it's a lucrative billion-dollar venture for all participating law enforcement agencies.

Back in the USA News Story: Civil Forfeiture Laws: Fight for your right to keep your cash.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States

pecifically, the Federal Equitable Sharing Program allows state and local agencies to bypass state laws that protect property owners and even provides the asset sharing as an incentive. With an 80% cut of forfeiture revenues as an incentive, there's little to stop state and local law enforcement agencies from transferring the cases to the federal government while filling their annual budget gaps.

How much money is involved? Forfeitures totaled $4.3 billion in 2012. Since 2001, 62,000 warrantless vehicle searches, such as Stuarts', have resulted in $2.5 billion of seized property. These funds now account for 20 percent or more of state and local police department's annual budgets. Therefore, it's easy to see how difficult it will be to change these laws. No government agency should be able to fund their department on non-conviction based asset forfeitures.

While laws that allow forfeiture after a conviction clearly have merit, this is a dishonest law that allows for a he-said, she-said argument between civilians and law enforcement. To make the situation worse, the government uses the average American's lack of knowledge about the law to pad their department's pockets on the backs of hardworking Americans.


Other Articles of Interest:

Justice Department Strikes a Blow Against Medicare Fraud

Times Change: More Americans Support the 2nd Amendment Over Gun Control

How Much Does Government Regulation Cost?

The TPP: Politicians Aren't Ashamed of Taking Our Jobs


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