Vox ran a piece yesterday on a man named Charles Clarke who had his life savings confiscated at the Cincinnati airport because his bag smelled like pot.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, the government can seize property and money even if the owner hasn’t been convicted of a crime. And in many cases it’s ‘finder’s keepers’ with the seizing agency keeping the bulk of the funds or goods.
Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, said losing that $11,000 was “devastating.” He’s been forced to live with his mom, trumping his plans to move closer to school. He’s fallen back on other family for financial support. And he had to take out loans for school instead of paying for it up front — for which he’s still in debt.
He brought all of his cash with him on the trip because “he didn’t want to deposit it in a bank or leave it in Florida while movers would be in his home.” There’s a large chunk of society that’s ‘unbanked’, that’s been exacerbated by Dodd Frank financial reform (and in particular the Durbin Amendment) which has reduced the profitability to banks for offering checking accounts, and that’s why products like Bluebird and Redcard exist.
The man admitted smoking pot before coming to the airport. In some jurisdictions and in some circumstances that’s legal under state (although rarely under federal) law. He was traveling on a one way ticket, as he had spent months visiting family and didn’t have firm return plans when he booked his travel. And he couldn’t document where he had gotten all of his savings.
That was enough for the government to confiscate (and keep) the cash. There were no drugs in his possession, or in his checked bag. He worked consistently at low paying jobs, hardly the profile of a drug dealer, and claims to have saved the money over five years.
Under the law, a police officer only needs probable cause to take someone’s property or cash because he felt it was in some way gained or meant for criminal activity. After that, it’s on the property owner to prove law enforcement wrong.
And in the event someone goes through the time and expense to challenge the government, the standard is ‘preponderance of the evidence’ rather than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ — the government gets to show it’s ‘more likely than not’ that the property was in some way tied to illicit activity. Property doesn’t get due process rights. That’s why when the FDA seizes items, it’s the items that are charged directly — such as UNITED STATES of America v. 76,552 POUNDS OF FROG LEGS and U.S. v. 24/94 KG BAGS, MORE OR LESS, OF AN ARTICLE OF FOOD. This case was United States of America v. $11,000.00 in United States Currency.
There were over 90 seizures at the Cincinnati airport alone in 2013. Walking through an airport puts you in contact with law enforcement, or pseudo-law enforcement which may detain you until officers they call arrive. And that means you aren’t really safe. The mere allegation that your stuff smells is justification for the government to take it all away from you, even if it wasn’t involved in the commission of a crime and even if you are never charged (or charged and are found innocent).
Heels First Travel asked, “What if your Uber or cab driver was transporting something illegal in the trunk before he handled your luggage?”
There’s a reason I always insist on the TSA changing into fresh gloves before swiping me when I’m pulled aside for a ‘random test’.
There were some minor reforms to Justice Department policy in January that prohibits federal agencies from keeping money for themselves ‘except where needed’ but this does little to stop cases like this one from repeating.
Be careful out there…
More on civil asset forfeiture, from Last Week Tonight: