Federal and state law enforcement officials seized $11,000 from 24-year-old Charles Clarke. His crime: smelling like pot.
Welcome to the ridiculous world of civil asset forfeiture, a process that allows the government to seize assets based on suspicion.
In February of 2014, Clarke went to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. He was returning home to Florida after spending several months with family in Ohio. While checking in, a ticket agent smelled marijuana on Clarke’s luggage, and alerted authorities.
When questioned by authorities, Clarke admitted to smoking pot while on his way to the airport, and allowed the agents to search his bags. The officers involved confiscated $11,000, a cellphone, and an iPad.
Certainly, showing up to an airport with a bag full of money while reeking of pot is suspicious behavior. To make matters worse, Clarke became irate with the agents, grabbing one of them by the wrist. So to an extent, it’s understandable why the officers involved initially seized the money.
But well over a year later, the government has still not returned the money despite the fact that Clarke has not been charged with a crime. His phone and iPad were returned two months later. So why not the cash?
Under the rules of civil asset forfeiture, the burden of proof has shifted to Clarke. Despite the fact that carrying cash is not a crime, the government is refusing to return the money unless Clarke can prove it was obtained legally.
For the record, Clarke claims some of the money was obtained from working three jobs, and the rest was given to him by his family. He also claims he can document where the cash came from. But even if you assume Clarke is lying, the fact remains that the government should have to prove his guilt.
To make matters worse, cases of civil asset forfeiture are on the rise. And the increase in seizures coincides with the advent of the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program, which allows local and state governments to keep a significant portion of assets obtained via civil asset forfeiture.
In recent years, local and state law enforcement agencies have been using civil asset forfeiture to pad their budgets, and the proceeds from money and property seized has been used to purchase things like a Dodge Viper and pay for officers’ overtime. Additionally, seizures at airports, specifically the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, have also skyrocketed.
According to Institute for Justice, the airport conducted just a “couple dozen” seizures per year during the late 1990s. However, by 2013, the airport participated in 100 seizures, with proceeds totaling more than $2 million.
While the federal government is taking some steps to correct the inherent conflict of local governments profiting from seizures, the practice of civil asset forfeiture continues, as does Clarke’s fight to win back his savings.
“The law is not right,” he told The Daily Signal. “Innocent people are being treated like criminals without even being convicted of anything.”
(Source: The Daily Signal)
Jason Mathews is Internetting way too hard. Follow him at @jasonmathews316.