Imagine yourself getting ready to fly back to college. You have your clothes packed along with your college money, $11,000 in cash. When you get to airport security, law enforcement suspect you are possessing marijuana and search your check-in and carry-on luggage. They find your school money and confiscate it on the suspicion you are carrying or dealing drugs. After they find no evidence of marijuana or any other drugs, they allow you to continue on your flight, but keep your $11,000 cash, sighting federal forfeiture laws.
Now consider that over two years later, law enforcement still has not returned your $11,000 because the forfeiture laws say they don’t have to. How would you feel?
This is what happened to Charles Clarke. In February 2014, he was flying back to school and went through the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport when an airport officer and Covington police officer suspected him of possessing marijuana. When they inspected his luggage, they found and confiscated his $11,000 college money.
Clarke described what happened:
“They said they got a tip from a ticket agent that my bags smelled of marijuana. I asked them if they searched my bags and they said yes. They didn’t find anything. To prove the fact that I didn’t have anything on me, I let them search my carry-on. They still didn’t find anything. I didn’t have any drugs on me. I didn’t have anything on me, anything at all. They still took my money.”
“The money is an accumulation of overtime, from my student loans, from the federal aid I received, and I get benefits from my mom’s disability and me from my employment as well.”
Incidentally, Clarke is black and one has to wonder if that led to the suspicion and confiscation of his money.
Federal forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to confiscate cash and other items from criminals and drug dealers, whether they have direct evidence or just suspicions as in the case of Clarke. According to the Department of Justice:
“Criminal forfeiture is an action brought as a part of the criminal prosecution of a defendant. It is an in personam (against the person) action and requires that the government indict (charge) the property used or derived from the crime along with the defendant. If the jury finds the property forfeitable, the court issues an order of forfeiture.
For forfeitures pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO), as well as money laundering and obscenity statutes, there is an ancillary hearing for third parties to assert their interest in the property. Once the interests of third parties are addressed, the court issues a final forfeiture order.
Civil judicial forfeiture is an in rem (against the property) action brought in court against the property. The property is the defendant and no criminal charge against the owner is necessary.
Administrative forfeiture is an in rem action that permits the federal seizing agency to forfeit the property without judicial involvement. The authority for a seizing agency to start an administrative forfeiture action is found in the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S.C. § 1607. Property that can be administratively forfeited is: merchandise the importation of which is prohibited; a conveyance used to import, transport, or store a controlled substance; a monetary instrument; or other property that does not exceed $500,000 in value.”
In Clarke’s case, there was never any evidence to support the suspicion of the law enforcement officers who confiscated his college money. Yet despite a complete lack of evidence or history of drug use or dealing, Clarke’s money has not been returned to him for over 2 years.
Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, as well as a number of other states, have forfeiture laws that allow police to confiscate property and money simply on a hunch that it might be related to a crime. There need be no evidence to support the hunch.
Think about this. If for any reason law enforcement has a suspicion that you are involved in any drug or other criminal activity at your home, they can confiscate you house and all of your possessions along with all your back accounts, just because of a hunch. All someone, who has a grudge against you or anyone in your house, has to do is place an anonymous call to the police that your dealing drugs or running a prostitution ring or whatever out of your house and you could lose everything you own and it would be legal. Then it’s up to you to pay for legal counsel to try to get it back when you have no money to pay them with.
Chris Weist, an attorney with the non-profit Institute for Justice, has taken up Clarke’s case and has filed to have the drug trafficking case against Clarke dismissed due to a total lack of evidence.
Weist told the media:
“[We don’t believe he broke any laws], so that’s what scary about the forfeiture system. Basically a government agent can suspect you got cash that he thinks maybe drug-related and then they can just take it, and you have to go into federal court and fight for it for years. “
Another defense attorney, Mike Allen stated:
“Just because the money is there doesn’t mean that it’s the fruits of crime. Many times it is; most of the times it is, but not always. That’s why I think you need a higher standard before you seize people’s property or money.”
I admit that federal forfeiture laws have helped in the fight against crime, but it’s also a very dangerous thing when false allegations or suspicions are made on an innocent person like Charles Clarke.
One lesson learned from this case is that if you travel, don’t carry large sums of money. Put it in a cashier’s check or something safe like that. Then perhaps you may arrive at your destination, you just might still be in possession of your money.