Couple Get Back $10,000 Seized By State Trooper After Local Media Starts Asking Questions

from the positive-power-of-shame dept

Here's one way to avoid the lengthy, often-futile process of recovering your assets after they've been seized by the government via civil asset forfeiture. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports law enforcement suddenly decided to return $10,000 to the couple it seized it from, but only after being asked to comment on the forfeiture. (h/t C.J. Ciaramella)

After the Gazette-Mail reached out to the state police Monday with inquiries about the seizure, and after weeks of [Tonya] Smith calling police, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney and local politicians, Smith said an officer returned her and [Dimitrios] Patlias’ possessions in full Thursday evening.

The couple was traveling from New Jersey to a casino in West Virginia. A West Virginia state trooper rolled the dice on the out-of-state plates and pulled over their car for "failure to drive within [their] lane." From there, the stop became exploratory with the trooper accusing them of smuggling drugs, smuggling cigarettes, or -- following a search of the vehicle -- gift card fraud.

Smith and Patlias had $10,000 in cash between both of them. In addition, they had a number of gift cards, loyalty cards, and cash cards -- all legally obtained -- which the trooper used to shore up the last accusation on the list. Despite being possible fraudsters/smugglers, the trooper handed the pair a warning for the lane violation and let them go on their way. So, they returned to New Jersey with $2 in their pockets.

This set the forfeiture in motion. The couple had 30 days to state a claim to their belongings, otherwise the proceeds would be split between the state police and the prosecutor. The trooper had every incentive to seize everything in the car (which included a cellphone): 90% of proceeds go to the agency that performed the seizure.

As the article points out, this could have been deterred, if not avoided completely. But, unfortunately, a bill requiring convictions for forfeitures died in the state legislature. Despite the incentive-skewing, asset forfeiture still has its advocates who make horrible arguments like this on its behalf:

Those in support of the practice say the ability of law enforcement officers to use forfeiture laws can hamstring drug dealing networks by leaning on their finances, which can be more effective than criminal charges. They also point out that the proceeds can help police buy much-needed equipment.

First, most forfeitures performed in the US involve low dollar amounts, often taken from someone never charged with drug-related crimes. Second, what kind of idiot justifies the seizure of property from people who've never been convicted of a crime by stating that it helps the government buy new stuff for itself? The answer is: only the sort of idiot who can't see how it incentivizes exactly the sort of thing that happened here: a state trooper pulling over an out-of-state driver for a roadside fishing expedition. Nothing about the process deters police officers from shaking down anyone and everyone for valuables so long as they can imagine a criminal origin for the property of citizens.

This worked out well for this couple, who now won't have to spend more than what was seized to get their property returned. Fighting forfeiture is expensive and the outcome is far from guaranteed, even if there's no evidence the seized property was involved in or the byproduct of criminal activity. Officers looking at a 90% payout down the road know this. That's why asset forfeiture -- minus criminal charges -- is the abusive debacle it is today. Nothing about it rewards honest law enforcement work.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Sep 2018 @ 3:27pm

    'They're drug dealers! ... probably... okay maybe.'

    Those in support of the practice say the ability of law enforcement officers to use forfeiture laws can hamstring drug dealing networks by leaning on their finances, which can be more effective than criminal charges.

    Even assuming this is true, without a conviction, which requires this pesky thing called 'evidence', there is no way to tell whether they are robbing drug dealers or just people that happen to have money on them.

    As such the idea that they're hitting drug dealer finances is a groundless assertion, because they haven't demonstrated that the money they are grabbing has any link to drugs at all. At that point they could claim that they're trying to slow down the next Doctor Evil from building a death ray and it would be just as supported by evidence.

    Generalities aside the fact that the most basic questions was enough to get them to return the money in this case makes it pretty damn clear that even they knew they had no chance of defending their theft in court, yet the fact that it took those questions before they bothered to return the stolen money likewise makes it clear that they didn't care until they were put in a position where their theft might negatively impact them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Sep 2018 @ 4:17pm

      Re: 'They're drug dealers! ... probably... okay maybe.'

      My understanding is that the whole asset forfeiture thingy was originally targeted at drug dealers, I am OK with the expansion to other crimes. What I am not OK with is why the original rule/law did not include a conviction requirement.

      I suspect they thought taking the money from drug dealers would help to destroy their business, even without a conviction, but they certainly did not think things through. Or did they?

      Then there's:

      Amendment 5 - Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings

      No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

      "...nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..." and "...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation..." certainly seem to make the whole concept unconstitutional. The problem appears to be that not only has law enforcement absconded with their money, the cost to retrieve that money is so burdensome that taking a case to a higher court for Constitutional review appears to be prohibitive. So far.

      Some legal do-gooder organization needs to step in, in the right case so that appeals become necessary, and need to do things right in the early stages so that appeals are not tossed for procedural issues.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        LukeInDC, 21 Sep 2018 @ 2:16pm

        Re: Re: 'They're drug dealers! ... probably... okay maybe.'

        The 5th amendment is exactly the reason why the state will always drop the cases if the person acts like they will put up a serious fight. No case = no case law. If asset seizures ever hit a state supreme court or the US supreme court, it would be smacked down for the unconstitutional thievery and farce that it is.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 7:54am

      Re: 'They're drug dealers! ... probably... okay maybe.'

      Just another reason to stop the war on drugs!!! Then we can shrink the police for down and the prison system. Stop with the STEALING of people's money!!! It literally is Highway robbery, by the blue line gang!!! This garbage is sickening.

      This should NEVER happen, not even to a drug dealer unless they find actual drugs and the person is taken to court and found guilty. Only THEN should the money ever be taken. But since the Criminal Gang called the Police have stooped so low as to steal anyone's money and other property like phones which also are not cheap just for whatever made up reason they want and then send you on your way with nothing. The only real criminals are the POLICE Tyrants. This needs to END.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 14 Sep 2018 @ 9:17pm

      Re: 'They're drug dealers! ... probably... okay maybe.'

      Well, people who are drug dealers often are in possession of money, so obviously anyone who possesses money is a drug dealer!

      Of course, the police also possess wallets that contain money, but they can't be drug dealers because they have badges (even though cops get caught and prosecuted for dealing drugs pretty regularly).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sayonara Felicia-San (profile), 12 Sep 2018 @ 4:05pm

    Parallel Construction for Lazy People.

    What you see on the surface, are bizarre incidents of police seizing money from 'innocent' people, but beneath the surface, the police clearly got a tip from our friends at the NSA.

    Police are getting so lazy these days that they are forgetting to create a legitimate cover story.

    The gravy train continues.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2018 @ 6:13pm

      Re: Parallel Construction for Lazy People.

      You got any proof of that outrageous conspiracy theory? Or are you just being argumentative because you hate the site?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 6:41am

        Re: Re: Parallel Construction for Lazy People.

        It goes much deeper than that, down in the bowels of DIA there are tunnels leading to underground bunkers for the Illuminati to gather after world leaders blow everything up. And the big blue horse with the red eyes is actually their space ship ready at the pad for immediate launch in case their plans go awry.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DeComposer (profile), 13 Sep 2018 @ 10:43am

        Re: Re: Parallel Construction for Lazy People.

        Your irony detector needs to be calibrated.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2018 @ 4:10pm

    I'm glad TechDirt is keeping up on current uses of asset forfeiture abuse, but I'm failing to see how this particular case relates to technology? Just that they were driving a car and had their cell phone forfeited on bogus charges that had nothing to do with the stop?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 12 Sep 2018 @ 4:38pm

    Civil Asset Forfeiture is Stealing

    Here's one way to avoid the lengthy, often-futile process of recovering your assets after they've been seized by the government via civil asset forfeiture.

    civil asset forfeiture is governmentese for stealing while wearing a government issued costume and hiding behind the so-called "law".

    Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report published by The Institute for Justice found at at the website https://ij.org and titled Policing for Profit:

    The forfeiture funds of the DOJ and Treasury Department together took in nearly $29 billion from 2001 to 2014, and combined annual revenue grew 1,000 percent over the period.

    Faced with such daunting hurdles, many owners never make it to court. These owners’ cases are generally decided in the government’s favor by default, resulting in forfeiture of the property. In contrast, when a person is accused of a crime, the government cannot simply win by default. The defendant either takes a plea or the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil forfeiture cases, some owners give up on their property because they cannot find or afford a lawyer, miss one of the often tight deadlines to file a claim or are otherwise stymied by a confusing legal process. Other owners opt not to fight because they conclude that the costs in time, money and aggravation outweigh the value of their property.

    https://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit/

    Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report published by The Washington Post found at the website www.washingtonpost.com and titled Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year:

    Officers can take cash and property from people without convicting or even charging them with a crime — yes, really! — through the highly controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Last year, according to the Institute for Justice, the Treasury and Justice departments deposited more than $5 billion into their respective asset forfeiture funds. That same year, the FBI reports that burglary losses topped out at $3.5 billion.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/23/cops-took-more-stuff-from-people-tha n-burglars-did-last-year/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1d69bbf9a78a

    Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report published by Bloomberg.com found at the website www.bloomberg.com and titled Government Calls It Forfeiture, But It’s Theft

    Certainly, Americans would be up in arms if the government were allowed to seize their property any time it pleased. Or at least, that’s what one might believe. In reality, Americans have suffered the outrageous practice of civil-asset forfeiture with relative complacency.

    Civil-asset forfeiture might sound boring, but in reality it amounts to government theft of people’s belongings. If the police suspect you of a crime — or claim they suspect you — this process allows them to take your belongings, even in cases when they don’t accuse you of breaking the law. Even if you are never charged, or are found not guilty, some states don’t make the police give your property back.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-09-11/apple-aapl-considers-the-death-of-the-iphon e-sim-card

    It is truly amazing the amount of abuse a people will endure when inflicted upon them by their fellow countrymen/women.

    Most Americans apparently are suffering from a collective form of Stockholm Syndrome. Where they delude themselves (or are conditioned) into believing their oppressors in government who constantly surveil, harass, intimidate, lie, torture, murder, humiliate, steal and otherwise generally ignore (except when being shook down or frightened into submission) are there to protect and serve them. HAHA jokes on you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2018 @ 5:44pm

    It's a shame our own government hates us for our freedom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2018 @ 5:58pm

    Robbed at badgepoint. No biggy they had to give it back - this time. Not like there is some punishment for this blatent injustice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      me, 13 Sep 2018 @ 7:09am

      Re: its is robbery

      Trooper should fired arrested and beaten

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 7:59am

        Re: Re: its is robbery

        Why, he's doing what he's supposed to. Stealing from the American Public!!! They're not going to fire him or anyone else for doing this. After all, they get a bunch of FREE MONEY!!!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nolo Contendere, 12 Sep 2018 @ 6:04pm

    No Way Jose

    Driving a car these days is an excuse for revenue hunting "authorities." Any excuse to select, inspect, detect, confiscate, etc. , for driving an inch over a "line."

    Not to mention inspections, parking tickets, registrations, fuel, repairs, and on and on... A large revenue generation TRAP.

    I bailed out on all this (in addition to flying) years ago, although it required changes in lifestyle and location, but it was worth it and (I gave myself a 30% net income raise in the process).

    Now... about those pesky chem trails and never ending wars (including the war on intelligence)...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 13 Sep 2018 @ 7:10am

      Re: No Way Jose

      This is due to right-wing thinking. You see, they like to keep taxes on the floor but even those duties they deem to be within the purview of the government, i.e. protection of property and law enforcement, need to cost as little to the taxpayer as possible.

      Result: insufficient revenues to cover essential services.

      Then some bright spark had a great idea: why not use the War on Drugs to lend cover to what is basically a revenue-increasing exercise by effectively robbing people at the roadside? The Constitution always seems to take a back seat to the War on ____. That's why this is happening. So, do you want it to stop? Be willing to have that conversation with your representatives about how much stuff costs and how it's going to be paid for.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2018 @ 6:24pm

    Nothing about it rewards honest law enforcement work.

    That's not really true though. Asset forfeiture rewards all law enforcement agencies, both honest and corrupt. It's not moral that it rewards the corrupt, but that doesn't mean it doesn't sometimes reward honest work too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 6:44am

      Re:

      I suppose one could be both honest and corrupt at the same time, however - that would require that said crook admit crimes committed and we all know wise guys do not do that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    carlb, 12 Sep 2018 @ 6:39pm

    Odd then that en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Driving_in_the_United_States doesn't have a huge red {{warningbox}} saying not to go there, as would be applied to any other destination where the voyager is routinely robbed blind. Standards must be slipping?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Sep 2018 @ 6:58pm

    'Those in support of the practice say the ability of law enforcement officers to use forfeiture laws can hamstring drug dealing networks by leaning on their finances, which can be more effective than criminal charges.'

    Are you high?
    If they were all drug dealers, they have access to lots and lots of cash beyond what they found int he car not to mention drugs to sell.
    Its more effective to mug them that pursue a case...
    Something something like a gang...


    'They also point out that the proceeds can help police buy much-needed equipment.'
    Get off your high horses & make the state fund their own departments rather than allowing them to shake down people dumb enough to catch their eye.

    This law is not being used how it was claimed & promised.
    It is being used to rob innocent citizens by cops who merely need to offer up any possible excuse. They won't even waste a $2 drug test that says everything is meth, the form a narrative based on what they find & scoop the cash and run.

    This shouldn't be legal.
    But I'm sure some court is ready to give them good faith to ignore they pulled over a busload of nuns & mugged them of their bake sale cash b/c they might be from drug sales.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2018 @ 9:31pm

      Re:

      Low level drug dealers actually make shockingly little money. As in 'less than working at McDonalds for slinging weed' little.

      But really the police acting as highway robbers can't end well for anyone in any way. Either it leads to the same issues of decreased travel and trade that lead to decreased revenue and power for the county or people eventually get fed up and start treating them exactly like highway robbers were back in the day.

      Any non-foolish ruler regardless of moral character responded to highwaymen by organizing patrols to shoot on sight or arrest and then execute as an example to others to the damage both to their domain's economy and their authority. It was a high damage both economically and in human lives crime and treated accordingly.

      Fundraising via civil forfeiture like this as a policy would have been recognized as a ruinous and utterly stupid path by people who considered germ theory implausible and thought wearing flowers would protect you from the disease via countering bad smells!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 12 Sep 2018 @ 8:50pm

    Somali pirates ain't got nothin' on US cops.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 6:47am

    I wonder whether the cops have ever pulled over an armored car .. they all carry large amounts of money and yet they are not subjected to asset forfeiture, why not?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 8:03am

      Re:

      Test that money, I'm sure there's drugs all over it. The only people with large piles of money are drug dealers. So ya, the police should pull over the Armored cars, make up whatever dumb excuse if they even bother, and take all the money and send them on their way. Why not? It's no different.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Padpaw (profile), 14 Sep 2018 @ 5:25am

      Re:

      Probably the idea the security guards have guns and would appropriately think they were criminals dressed like police trying to steal their money.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 13 Sep 2018 @ 10:42am

    Turnabout?

    So when do I get to search a policeman and confiscate all cash on him since it is likely the proceeds of a criminal endeavor which I want to discourage?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2018 @ 1:36pm

    Bad Cop. No Doughnut.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 14 Sep 2018 @ 5:24am

    Every cop and law enforcement employee who participates i this should fired and charged with grand theft.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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