It seems impossible. You are walking through LAX and get stopped by the airport police. They ask you if you have any cash on you. You tell them you do. You also tell them it is from a sale you made on Ebay and you are bringing it home to your mom for Christmas. Truthfully. They ask to see it. You open your duffel bag to reveal the approximately $7,100.00 and they take it. Just like that. They say something along the lines of they believe the cash was obtained through illegal means even though you can provide proof of the transaction on Ebay. This actually happened. It is an example of civil asset forfeiture. This is different from criminal asset forfeiture. A car that is confiscated because it was used to transport illegal drugs, is a case of criminal asset forfeiture.
The difference between civil and criminal forfeiture, is that the latter requires that a person be convicted of a crime in order for his or her property being taken away. Civil forfeiture on the other hand, is essentially a lawsuit filed directly against a particular possession (i.e. cash, a car, a home) regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence. (There is an actual case called the United States v. One Pearl Necklace.) This seems completely illogical as you thought you were innocent until proven guilty in the United States of America. Not so when it comes to asset forfeiture. But note the case is against the property and not the person. This is a very manipulative way to get around our law of innocent until proven guilty.
Civil asset forfeiture truly began when the War on Drugs campaign started in the 1980's. The original intent of the asset forfeiture laws were made to preclude criminals--primarily drug lords--from profiting from money they made from their crimes. In 1984, due to heightened concerns about the drug trade, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act which created a fund that gave proceeds from forfeitures to the law enforcement agencies they came from. For example, local police were compensated with a percentage of the financial proceeds, through a program called Equitable Sharing which is a program by which the proceeds of seized assets, are shared between state and federal authorities. Soon thereafter, each state established their own forfeiture laws.
This is clearly a conflict of interest by allowing an enticing incentive to take people's property. In 2015, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder terminated certain aspects of the Equitable Sharing program. The Trump administration however has put this program back in full force. It is known as policing for profit.
In 2014 there was a well-known study conducted by the Washington Post which took a look at 400 seizures in 17 states that participated in the Equitable Sharing agreements. The study showed that police can stop motorists, under any pretext of a traffic infraction, and decide accordingly to"analyze" the intentions of drivers by assessing their behavior, and request permission to search the vehicle without a warrant, obviously hoping to find any kind of valuables, cash or otherwise. This is insane. Even more crazy is the fact that out of the hundreds of seizures the Washington Post looked at, there were no arrests made by police. NO arrests. Meaning these seizures had nothing to do with criminal activity and everything to do with greed on the part of law enforcement. I guess to protect and serve does not apply if you happen to travel with anything of value.
Each state is different with regard to asset forfeiture laws. In one state it may be probable cause, and in another it's preponderance of the evidence and so on but the idea is the same--guilty until proven innocent.
Also, certain states are more known for taking property like your home as opposed to cash. Such an example is Pennsylvania, particularly Philadelphia. Homes in Philadelphia are routinely seized for unproven minor drug crimes like marijuana possession, often involving people in a family who don't actually own the home. For instance someone who lives with their parents who gets convicted of selling marijuana, may unknowingly endanger their parents who own the house, by having their house taken away due to something like selling a small amount of marijuana out of the home. This has actually happened. Many times. Even more disturbing is the fact that it is overwhelmingly African-Americans and Latinos who are affected.
In some Texas counties, over 40% of police budgets are from asset forfeiture. The Tenaha Police Department, located in Shelby County, Texas, is notorious for pulling people over for a traffic violation and then taking any of their valuables. When Ron Henderson and Jennifer Boatwright were driving on the highway, they were pulled over by a Tenaha police officer for driving in the left lane without passing. The officer asked if there were any drugs in the car — they said no, and consented to a search. After finding cash and a glass pipe that Boatwright stated was a gift for a relative, the officer took the couple to the police station. There, the Shelby County District Attorney threatened to charge them with felonies and take away their child--yes, their child--unless they gave their money to the city right then and there.
In August 2018, West Virginia State Police seized $10,000 from a couple driving, claiming they had obtained the cash they had, illegally. In fact, they had legally won money at the at Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore and were on their way to dinner in Hollywood, West Virginia. To add insult to injury, the woman was 34 weeks pregnant, and had just begun maternity leave. West Virginia has a horrible record when it comes to asset forfeiture. The West Virginia County Sheriff’s office has sold property of forfeited assets which include a Nintendo, Adidas sneakers, Legos, strollers and brand name watches. Regardless of how the funds were confiscated, all proceeds were put into a "forfeiture account." WTF? In Michigan law enforcement agencies seized $11.8 million in cash and $1.3 million in property in 2017 alone. In Georgia, a Sheriff bought a $70,000 Dodge Charger Hellcat with forfeiture funds. The Sheriff's office defended the claim, saying that, in addition to driving the car to and from work, the Sheriff, uses it "when he participates in field operations, covert and otherwise, with our deputies." Whatever that means. In New Mexico, law enforcement has been known to allow "perps" to go free, under the stipulation that they leave their property--i.e., cash, cars, behind.
In 2017, Iowa passed forfeiture reforms that require a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited. The problem is that this applies only to $5,000 or less.Even in liberal Sonoma County in Northern California, police seized more than $2.4 million in cash and other valuables over the past three years.
Only one state, North Carolina, requires a criminal conviction before a person’s property can be seized.
The laws seem to be changing somewhat as the Supreme Court is not looking favorably at the practice. It speaks volumes when Donald Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch and Barack Obama appointee Sonia Sotomayor took the same position in the civil asset forfeiture case of Timbs vs. Indiana. Both Gorsuch and Sotomayor found it unreasonable that following an arrest for selling $260 worth of heroin out of his $42,000 Land Rover in Richmond, Indiana, Tyson Timbs had his car taken from him because civil asset forfeiture laws allowed it. It seems excessive to take away a $42,000 car for selling $260 worth of heroin, which is exactly what his lawyer argued and sited the 8th Amendment which states that excessive fines not be imposed.
Sotomayor was particularly stern with the state when she said she made it very clear she viewed the forfeiture of Timbs’ vehicle as extreme. You think!?
Interestingly both liberals and conservatives for the most part, disagree with civil asset forfeiture. They understand it is grossly unfair. Local law enforcement however, are big fans as the law enables them to use the money to fund their departments in pretty much any way they see fit. On an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, there was a segment about asset forfeiture. They show testimony given before a Citizen Review Board Hearing, where a police chief actually calls the money seized as “pennies from heaven.” He goes onto say that there have been times when they bought "toys" that the department could not afford. He actually admits there are no real rules about it and that they have spent money on such things as a margarita machine. Yes, a margarita machine. Fun toy for the police of all people! Do they drive around after having a few??
I can understand why law enforcement does not want the laws to change--they are addicted to the revenue stream. This is preposterous. The thought of it being taken away would be akin to politicians having their perks such as free travel and trips, taken away. They seem to have no shame. They have even gone so far as to take money from a Church. Victor Guzman and his brother-in-law were driving on an Interstate near Virginia to purchase land for their Church. An officer pulled them over for speeding and found $28,500 in cash in donations from parishioners. The officer took the cash. It seems no one is spared.
The statistics speak volumes. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Justice's asset forfeiture fund made $93.7 million. In 2014 the proceeds were up to $4.5 billion.
There is no written policy in most states that provide law enforcement with the guidelines for asset forfeiture which seems to be the way they want it. In other words, it is the wild west and it is citizens who suffer. Most people don't know much about asset forfeiture until it happens to them. Then the question arises--the police took my money--now what do I do? Make sure first and foremost to keep your mouth shut. Then contact an attorney ASAP. There are not many attorneys who specialize in asset forfeiture. In fact, Jacek Lentz is one of a very few attorneys who deal with asset forfeiture federally, meaning in every state.
A lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of trying to get their money back. Don't be. Can you imagine the government taking a case to court and explaining to a judge how they pulled you over for failing to signal a lane change and then took your cash, Rolex and iPhone? Even if it's not such a blatant transgression, your chances of success are good as long as you have someone to represent you legally who knows what they are doing and understands the way the system works. Asset forfeiture lawyer Jacek Lentz is as good as it gets.