US v. Seventeen thousand-nine hundred dollars ($17,900) in United States Currency (D.C.C. Case No. 15-cv-00368 (CRC): OUTRAGEOUS Asset Forfeiture

I got the head’s up about this case from Kevin Williamson of the National Review, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Where Due Process Goes to Die, June 25, 2017, and had to read it myself. This is the sort of thing that makes normal, law-abiding citizens mad as hell.

Essentially, this kid leaves his backpack on an Amtrak train and someone else picks it up. This new person finds $17,900 in cash in the backpack and informs law enforcement. Law enforcement puts a drug dog on it, and it alerts. The police find the name of the owner of the backpack, Peter Rodriquez, and they contact him. He denies knowing anything about the money in the backpack. Later that day, Peter’s mom and her domestic partner contact the cops and tell them that the money belongs to them. So, the cops should return the money, right? Uh, no.

They seized the money and then the DEA started an administrative process to forfeit the money to the United States. The DEA argued it was forfeitable under 21 USC §881 because it constituted “money…intended to be furnished by a person in exchange for a controlled substance, proceeds traceable to such an exchange, or moneys…used or intended to be used to facilitate a violation of [the Controlled Substances Act].” I mean, WTF?!?

But it gets worse! This happened in 2014. The district court, in its order, noted that a month after this trip, Peter Rodriguez was arrested for criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree. He was later convicted. He also had a minor conviction 7 years earlier. His mother’s partner had minor drug convictions 12, 14, and 23 years earlier. This, apparently, constitutes competent evidence for the court that this money was related to drug proceeds!

But it gets even worse. The government then filed a Verified Complaint for Forfeiture against the money, and these women had to file as — get this– INTERVENORS. The government filed interrogatories on the women asking them to essentially prove the money belonged to them. The Government moved to have them dismissed as having NO STANDING! The government argued they were “true strangers to the events giving rise to the forfeiture” and demonstrated “no colorable interest” in the money.

After recounting all this, the Court then proceeded to “analyze” their claims and given the number of “quotations” around “facts the court obviously didn’t believe” “decided” “to keep” “their money.” The Court said this: “Claimants’ larger problem is that their labyrinthine chronology simply defies common sense…With this truism in mind, the Court finds that no reasonable jury could credit Claimants’ proffered basis for their alleged ownership of the Defendant currency. In so doing, the Court makes no findings as to either Claimant’s credibility: it instead holds that their composite story exceeds the bounds of rational acceptance.” Two things here: 1) I don’t find these women’s stories to be all that fanciful. Frankly, as I’ve worked with poor people throughout my career, it looks to me like they were handling money in a way that a number of poor people, who don’t always use banks or have credit cards, do. It’s not how I would handle my money, but I don’t think it’s so outside of the norm as to be unbelievable, and 2) if the judge thinks they’re lying, he should say they’re lying and charge them with perjury. I think he’s not doing that because he knows that he can’t really say they’re not telling the truth. Seriously. The judge is both calling them liars, and then also saying they’re not liars. Pick one; and live with your decision.

So, the government got the money. No one was ever charged with a crime. No one was ever stopped for a crime! Not only was there no arrest warrant, or investigation, there was never any reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity was afoot aside from, I guess, Fido’s “alert” on a backpack that did not contain any drugs. No way did these events rise to the level demanded by the statute– that the “money…[be] traceable” to illegal drugs. Instead, the government took this money, and then demanded that the owners of it “prove” they were entitled to it (and only after the government argued they lacked standing to even challenge the forfeiture!). All of this is just outrageous in my opinion. But this is the state of the law at this point in our history. Luckily, it looks like things may be changing, but we’re not there yet.

Flag this case in your brain. I suspect we’ll be seeing it up in the United States Supreme Court.