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10 Egregious Abuses Of Civil Asset Forfeiture
In the United States, law enforcement agencies have the power to seize the assets of those suspected of criminal activity. On its face, this seems somewhat reasonable. However, the threshold for suspicion of criminal involvement is perilously low and allows law enforcement agencies to abuse the power afforded through civil forfeiture. Many innocent citizens have had their property seized as a result, and the following instances of civil forfeiture abuse are particularly egregious.
10DEA Agents Seize $16,000 From Amtrak Traveler
After saving up enough money to pursue a career in the music industry, Joseph Rivers, 22, bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles. For DEA agents, that act alone—along with the fact that he was traveling with such a large amount of cash—was enough to suspect that Rivers was involved in drug trafficking or some other “narcotic activity.”
Other passengers traveling on the Amtrak train noted that Rivers, a young African-American man, was the only passenger to be singled out by the DEA. His attorney, Michael Pancer, suggested Rivers’s race may have played a role, as he was the only black passenger on his section of the train.
During the search and subsequent seizure of his cash, Rivers has said that he was completely cooperative and even allowed the DEA agents to contact his mother to corroborate his story. Rivers pleaded with agents that he would be penniless upon his arrival in California with no means of survival and no way of returning home. According to Rivers, “[The DEA agents] informed me that it was my responsibility to figure out how I was going to do that.”
Rivers was not charged with any crime, and there is no indication that he ever will be, but the DEA was still able to legally seize all of the $16,000 he carried. The DEA’s explanation for the seizure was particularly troubling: “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
9Philadelphia Couple’s Home Seized After Son Arrested For Marijuana
In 2012, Leon and Mary Adams had their property seized because their son, Leon Jr., had allegedly been selling marijuana from their front porch without their knowledge. Though Leon Jr. was indeed charged with a crime, he was alleged to have sold very small quantities—a “few $20 marijuana deals”—and the couple had nothing to do with the criminal activity. Leon Jr. had not yet been convicted of the criminal activity when the police asserted that they would be seizing the property that had been the home of Leon and Mary Adams since 1966.
According to the Philadelphia Police Department, Leon Jr. had sold $20 worth of marijuana to a police informant on multiple occasions. After the first sale, the informant went to the porch of the Adams home on two more occasions to again buy $20 worth of marijuana. With evidence in the form of marked bills and the ostensible testimony of the informant, Philadelphia Police used a SWAT team in riot gear to break down the door of the home and arrest Leon Jr. A month later, Leon and Mary Adams were informed that in addition to their son being in jail while awaiting trial, their home would also be seized under civil forfeiture laws.
The profits from the sale of the seized home would be split between the police and the district attorney’s office after it was sold at auction. The only reason police didn’t evict Leon and Mary Adams before they could challenge the civil forfeiture claim was that the elder Leon Adams was enduring a host of health problems and was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
The forfeiture case is still pending. During an early court appearance, the assistant district attorney assigned to the Adams case brought the wrong folder to court, causing a further delay in the process.
8Driver Loses $3,500 For ‘Looking Like A Drug Dealer’
In a case highlighted in an NAACP letter to Congress, an African-American man was pulled over traveling from Virginia to Delaware, allegedly for having a taillight out. The taillight had actually been functioning properly, but this ploy allowed the officer to size up the driver for a potential search and seizure through the use of civil asset forfeiture. The driver, according to the officer, “looked like a drug dealer,” which was apparently reason enough for the officer to enlist a drug-sniffing dog to search the man’s car.
After the search did not turn up any drugs or any other evidence of illegal activity, the officer asked if the driver was carrying any guns, drugs, or money. Though the driver had no firearms and no drugs, he did state that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer promptly seized the driver’s cash. Despite not finding any evidence that could support an arrest, they said that the money could only be the profits of drug dealing and was thus subject to legal seizure under civil forfeiture laws. The driver was never charged with any crime.
7Motel Seized From Owner Due To Drug Arrests Of Patrons
In 2009, Russ Caswell was informed by federal agents that his motel was being seized because the property had been used during the commission of drug crimes. The crimes cited by the federal agents occurred over a 20-year period and included 15 arrests in total, but all of the arrests were of patrons of the motel, not of Caswell or any of his employees. So though Caswell and his staff had actually helped police in securing many of these arrests and had not been even remotely implicated in any criminal activity, the federal agents still sought to seize his property.
Even though the case seemed “ludicrous” to Caswell, he was still forced to endure three years of litigation in which the government tried to permanently seize his property, which he owned outright and was worth in excess of $1 million. He paid $60,000 to fight the suit, and even then, Caswell had to rely on pro bono work from an attorney to continue to plead his case. After three years of court battles, the forfeiture case was ultimately dismissed. However, as is true of all forfeiture cases, the onus was on Caswell to prove his innocence rather than on the government to prove his guilt.
6Traveler Has $11,000 Seized From Luggage Alleged To Smell Of Marijuana
Charles Clarke was waiting to board a flight to Orlando when police approached him and questioned him about the contents of his luggage. A police dog had detected the smell of marijuana in a bag checked by Clarke, and Clarke admitted that he had smoked marijuana on the way to the airport. He also asserted to police that there was no marijuana in the bag itself.
Knowing that there was nothing illegal in the bag, Clarke consented to a search of its contents. When the police asked if Clarke was carrying any cash with him, he willingly informed officers that he had $11,000 and even showed them where it was. Since he could not provide any immediate documentation proving the $11,000 was lawfully earned, the police seized the money under the assumption that it was either the profits of narcotics trafficking or was being carried with the intent of purchasing narcotics.
Since Clarke was unaware that police could lawfully seize what amounted to his life savings without any tangible evidence of wrongdoing, he became combative when officers informed him they would be taking his money. In trying to keep the officers from his cash, he pushed one of them away, leading police to charge him with assault of a police officer, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
The assault charge was immediately dismissed, but Clarke had to agree to perform community service to get the disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges dropped. Of course, the $11,000 will remain with law enforcement unless Clarke is able to successfully contest the legality of the forfeiture.
5Philadelphia Family Has Home Seized Due To Son’s Drug Use
After their son Yianni was arrested for possession of $40 worth of heroin, Christos and Markella Sourovelis had their home seized by officials in Philadelphia, who contended that not only was Yianni in possession of heroin but that he was also selling it. The sales allegedly took place in the home or in front of the home, and though the Sourovelis family had no knowledge of the criminal activity, civil asset forfeiture laws allowed officials to evict the Sourovelis family from the home with no prior notice.
Though the Sourovelis family was ultimately able to return to their home eight days after they were evicted, the district attorney’s office used the forfeited house as leverage to ensure that Yianni, who was 22 at the time, would be permanently banned from the home to prevent future drug sales. While the Sourovelises were back in the home relatively quickly, the process of resolving the case took several months of court proceedings to determine whether or not they would be able to permanently remain in their home.
4Donald Scott Killed During Drug Raid Aimed At Seizing 250-Acre Malibu Property
In October 1992, multiple law enforcement agencies executed a search warrant on the home of Donald Scott, a somewhat reclusive millionaire who had rejected repeated overtures made by federal officials to sell his property. The property, which had archaeological ties to the Chumash, was believed by federal officials to be the site of a large marijuana growing operation. During the raid on the home, Scott’s wife screamed, “Don’t shoot me! Don’t kill me!” after deputies entered the home, which led Scott, who had been sleeping, to check on the disturbance while carrying a revolver.
When deputies encountered Scott, they demanded that he lower his gun. As he lowered the handgun, deputies opened fire and killed him on the spot. The deputies and other law enforcement officials then began their search of the home, leaving Scott on the floor unattended. In a recorded phone call from a neighbor that took place shortly after the shooting, the sheriff’s deputy who answered the phone told the neighbor that Scott, whose body was still lying in a pool of his own blood, was “busy.”
During the subsequent search of the property, officials turned up no evidence of any marijuana on the property. While the search for marijuana was used as the rationale for the raid on Scott’s home, it was later discovered that officials from multiple law enforcement agencies had discussed seizing the home and had even researched appraisals of similar properties in the area before executing the raid. In a report written by Michael Bradbury, the District Attorney of Ventura County, it was determined that property forfeiture was indeed one of the primary motivations for the raid.
3Couple Forced To Choose Between $6,037 And Custody Of Their Children
When Ron Henderson was pulled over by police in Tenaha while traveling from Houston to Linden, Texas, the officer informed him that he had been pulled over for traveling in the left lane for over half a mile without passing. During the stop, the officer claimed to smell marijuana. When asked if there were any drugs in the car, Henderson and his girlfriend, Jennifer Boatright, replied that there were not. The couple then consented to a search of the car, which yielded a glass pipe and $6,037 in cash, which the couple said they intended to use to buy a car when they arrived in Linden. No drugs of any kind were found in the vehicle.
The officers escorted Boatright and Henderson to the local police station, where they met with the county’s district attorney, Lynda K. Russell. The DA informed the couple that they had two options: They could be charged with money laundering and child endangerment, or they could simply sign a waiver to turn the $6,037 over to the city. The DA informed the couple that being charged with multiple felonies would land Henderson and Boatright in jail, and Child Protective Services would take custody of their children as a result, so the couple signed the cash over to the city rather than lose their children and face felony charges.
The situation experienced by Boatright and Henderson is a common one in Tenaha, as officers take full advantage of civil forfeiture laws as a means of generating revenue. After the city marshal fielded constant complaints from drivers passing through Tenaha who had endured similar circumstances, he simply complimented the officer on a job well done, saying, “Be safe, and keep up the good work.”
2Restaurateur Has One-Year-Old Baby Taken Away And $50,291 Seized
In another incident involving the same Tenaha police officer and district attorney, restaurant owner Dale Agostini was pulled over on the same stretch of highway as Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson for the same reason: driving in the left lane without passing. After using what turned out to be an untrained police dog to sniff the vehicle, officers found over $50,000 in cash but no evidence of drugs. Agostini explained to the officers that he had family in the area and he intended to buy restaurant equipment at a local auction with the cash he was carrying. At the time, Agostini was traveling with his fiance and their one-year-old child, along with a cook who worked at Agostini’s restaurant.
Agostini and the passengers were informed by Lynda K. Russell, the district attorney who had arrived on the scene, that they would face charges for money laundering and for engaging in organized criminal activity, and the baby would be turned over to Child Protective Services. The car, the $50,000, six cell phones, and an iPod were all seized.
When Agostini learned that he was being jailed and his child was being taken away, he asked if he could kiss his son goodbye, a request that was summarily denied. Russell was later heard on tape coldly joking about Agostini’s request, recalling that she said, “No, kiss me.” Agostini also asked to be permitted to speak with a lawyer, only to be told such a request could not be granted until he had spent at least four hours in jail. No criminal charges were ever filed.
1Father And Son Subjected To ‘Profiling For Profit’
Stephen Skinner and Jonathon Brashear were passing through New Mexico on a road trip to Las Vegas, when they were pulled over for traveling 8 kilometers (5 mi) over the speed limit. The New Mexico state trooper who made the initial stop issued a written warning for the speed infraction and then asked for permission to search the vehicle, which was a rental car.
A drug dog was called in, and the trooper dismantled parts of the vehicle during the course of the search but did not find any evidence of drugs. The trooper did note, however, the presence of nearly $17,000 in cash. The trooper detained Skinner and Brashear for two hours, referring to Skinner pejoratively by calling the 60-year-old African-American man “boy,” before telling him upon his release that “it wasn’t over yet.”
Once the pair reached Albuquerque, they were pulled over again—this time for an improper lane change by the Albuquerque Police Department. This stop, however, was supported by the presence of an officer with the Department of Homeland Security, who promptly seized the cash and the car, dropping off Skinner and Brashear at the airport with no money and no means of transportation.
It took two years and the intervention of the ACLU before the money was returned to Skinner and Brashear, and the incident was not the first time that Albuquerque officials faced criticism for abusing forfeiture laws: Bernalillo County and Darren White, the former sheriff, were required by a judge to pay in excess of $3 million in damages to people who had cash seized by sheriff’s deputies, as it had been determined that this money was seized with the primary intent of supplying additional funds for the police budget.
J. Francis Wolfe is a freelance writer and a noted dreamer of dreams. When he’s not writing, he is most likely waiting for “just one more wave,” or quietly reading under a shady tree.