There is a constant tension in the balance between maintaining safety and living in a free society where constitutional rules protect the public from overreaching by the government.  When the government overreaches, it is usually thru the actions of police.


Stopping cars and seizing money, often without any arrest being made or crime being proven, is one area which is sorely in need of balance.


CASE 1 involves Louisiana.  It wasn’t really one case, but hundreds.  Often, the stops were made without reasonable suspicion.  Worse, they were sometimes based upon fabricated excuses.  Cars were searched without probable cause or warrants.  Some were seized and sold at auction.  Cash was routinely seized by police, often with no indication the money was connected to any crimes.  It went into the pockets of police departments, District Attorneys’ offices and “judicial expense funds”.


Hidden cameras caught the police in the act of trumping up charges as a pretext to taking money.  If not for the year long investigation by NBC, the program might still be going on.


Even with this sort of abuse, some people are ok with a loss of liberty if the trade off is the promise of less crime.  They often fail to see this as a slippery slope.


Take CASE 2.  It is really thousands of cases from all across the nation lumped together as a coordinated policy…and a collective slippery slope.  The interstate coordination of aggressive policies for stopping and searching cars has been going on since 9/11/01.  It has led to almost 62,000 cash seizures totaling about 2.4 billion dollars as of 2014.  Most of the money goes into the coffers of law enforcement.


The problem is a large number of seizures are made without convictions or even arrests.  The lack of arrests speak to the absence of a discernible link between the money and crime.  The money is taken, the motorist is told to have a nice day and released.  The legal process for recovering the money is expensive and time consuming.  Many people rather walk away from the fight.


I fought (and won) one of these cases.  In CASE 3, the owner of a small music business was driving from his home in Vermont to shop at outlets in upstate NY.  I’ll call him Chuck (due to my fondness for Chuck Berry).  Chuck had neglected to resolve an old speeding ticket in NY and so his privileges to drive here had been suspended.  Blissfully forgetful, he was stopped by the minions of the law.


Chuck was ticketed for Aggravated Unlicensed Operation 3rd, a low level traffic misdemeanor.  His pregnant wife was with him and could have been allowed to drive.  Instead, they were detained while the police called for a drug sniffing dog.  While they waited,  the police accused Chuck of coming to NY to sell or buy drugs.  They weren’t sure which. They encouraged him to confess, listed the tools of interrogation at their disposal, and might have even threatened him with the comfy chair.  He wasn’t expecting a sort of Spanish Inquisition (nobody does), but he didn’t confess.


There was no probable cause to believe Chuck had committed a crime.  There was no basis for suspecting incriminating evidence was in his car.  He was African-American driving a newish E class Mercedes with his white wife.  Why did they detain him without probable cause?  You do the math.


While they waited for the dog, the police searched his car.  Hard.  His glove compartment door was ripped of the hinges, speakers torn out of sockets and the such.  The thing of interest found was under the seat.  It was a safe in the shape of a soda can. Opened, it revealed $12,000 in cash.


Having a friend in the music industry, I knew it was not at all unusual for people in his business to travel with cash.  When the dog arrived, he supposedly hit on the cash (or was goosed from behind by his handler—-no body-camera so we can’t be sure).  Since about 90% of US currency has some traces of drugs on it, this didn’t mean too much (   But it was enough to inspire the boys with badges to initiate a seizure of the cash.


No drugs were found.  No arrest was made other than the ticket for AUO 3rd.


I asserted a claim for Chuck in federal court to recover the 12k.  After some months of negotiations, the government agreed to give back about 80% of it.  Fighting for the rest would have been cost prohibitive.  Chuck took the settlement.  Then I filed a Notice of Claim in state court to make the police pay for the damage to his car and recover the rest of the money.  The case was settled to Chuck’s satisfaction.


Should we, as a culture, accept this sort of policing?  If have had your money seized for no good reason, the answer is an easy, “No!”


If a criminal is convicted of a crime related to the money seized,  the cash will be gone fair and square.  That is as it should be.   But if the offense is your car is nicer than the ones the cops drive and they want your money to pay for new cop toys, a seizure is just wrong.   The same is true if it is based on racial profiling.


You can challenge wrongful seizures effectively, although it does take time and money.  If you are subject to the “Money for Nothing” routine, consider retaining counsel and fighting the good fight.


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