Civil Asset Forfeiture: Destroying Dreams and Denying Due Process

Two sisters from Virginia — Vera and Apollonia Ward — were trying to start a business and build a better life for themselves only to be denied the American dream by overzealous law enforcement using a much misfired weapon in the tyrannical arsenal: civil asset forfeiture.

Here’s the back story, as reported by Reason:

Before last year, though, the Ward sisters, like many people, had never heard of civil forfeiture. They had started a business breeding American Bullies. They said they had a very successful first litter and were looking to buy two more dogs for breeding. Last November, they tried to send $17,500 in cash through FedEx to a middleman in California, essentially a dog broker, to scout and purchase two new animals for them. 

They said they received an unusual call several days later from someone claiming to be at a FedEx facility, who they later learned was a police officer. The person on the phone asked if there was anything in the package he should know about. No, they said, just the cash.

In follow-up calls, it became clear that they weren’t dealing with FedEx customer service but rather the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, which suspected the cash was drug proceeds. It became clear that the police were neither letting the cash go to its destination nor sending it back to the Wards.

“They said they smelled marijuana on the money,” Vera Ward says. “We don’t smoke. It’s not plausible since my sister and I aren’t around it.”

Not to mention the sisters say they had pulled the money out of the bank several days before they sent it and had receipts to back up their claim.

“We had proof, and they were like, ‘No you don’t, that’s drug money,’” Vera Ward remembers. When the sisters refused to cave and say the money was drug proceeds, they say officers threatened to go after them for money laundering.

When the sisters still refused to admit any connection to drug dealing, the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office seized the money anyway, and the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office moved to forfeit it under California’s civil forfeiture laws.

It should be noted at the beginning that the Ward sisters were never charged with a crime.

The San Joaquin County Sheriff seized their property without even the most perfunctory degree of due process. The Ward sisters were presumed guilty until proven innocent — innocent of a crime they not only didn’t commit, but were never charged with committing.

Like most people reading this article, the Ward sisters had never heard of civil asset forfeiture before law enforcement used it to justify seizing money made by the sisters from their small business.

For those readers unfamiliar with this tyrannical transfer of wealth, a constitutional violation known euphemistically as “asset forfeiture,” here’s a summary published in 2015 by The Washington Post:

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

With this kind of money up for grabs, it is little wonder that the plague of asset forfeiture has spread across the 50 states.

Paul-Martin Foss, president and executive director of the Carl Menger Center for the Study of Money and Banking, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank dedicated to educating the American people on the importance of sound money and sound banking, wrote:

Hardly a week goes by without a mention of some innocent person who is arrested and/or imprisoned for violating an unconstitutional law, an arcane regulation, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For completely innocuous conduct, they find themselves at the mercy of an uncaring, unfeeling bureaucratic apparatus that chews them up and spits them out.

As with so many of the other ongoing assaults on the vestigial liberty enjoyed by Americans, civil asset forfeiture is justified by its perpetrators as a means of keeping the people safe.

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Judge dismisses case over FBI raid of 1,400 private safe-deposit boxes and seizure of millions in jewelry and cash

A judge ruled on September 29 that federal agents who raided 1,400 safe-deposit boxes in March 2021 at a private vault company did not violate search and seizure laws, court documents shared with Insider show. 

A lawsuit filed in August alleged the FBI and the US attorney’s office in Los Angeles obtained warrants against US Private Vaults in Beverly Hills, California, by concealing critical details from the judge who approved them. 

In his ruling, District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner found no impropriety in the way the government got or executed the warrants for the raid. He dismissed the class-action suit filed on behalf of the people whose boxes had been seized.

The vault company was shut down following the raid and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money.

Laura Eimiller, a spokesperson for the FBI, told Insider: “Today’s District Court ruling makes it clear that agents investigating criminal activity at US Private Vaults did not mislead the court and affirms the FBI’s position that the investigation was conducted without malice and in a manner consistent with the law, FBI policies and the US Constitution.”

The lawsuit was filed after FBI agents raided the Beverly Hills branch of US Private Vaults, seizing more than $86 million in cash, as well as jewelry and gold from 1,400 safe-deposit boxes. It said owners’ items still had not been returned and that agents misled a judge to get the warrant.

None of the people who owned the boxes has been charged after almost five years of investigating; various agencies concluded “the problem was the business itself,” court documents said.

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FBI Accused of Misleading Judge in Warrant Request, Unlawfully Seizing $86 Million in Private Assets

Recently unsealed court documents appear to show that the FBI misled a U.S. magistrate judge in its request for a warrant to seize assets from a privately owned safe deposit box store in Beverly Hills, California.

The FBI began investigating U.S. Private Vaults—a store housing more than 1,000 private safe-deposit boxes—after its agents and local law enforcement observed suspected drug dealers and buyers in the vicinity. On March 22, 2021, FBI raided the vault, armed with a warrant by U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim, which granted them the right to seize properties belonging to the firm as part of the investigation, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The agency seized $86 million worth of cash, gold, silver, expensive jewelry, and other assets.

Pages 84 and 85 of the government’s affidavit requesting multiple warrants contained an assurance that the federal agency would respect the rights of safety deposit box customers.

Written by Andrew Brown, an assistant U.S. attorney and driving force of the investigation, that section of the affidavit makes it clear that warrants only authorize “seizure of the nests of the boxes themselves, not their contents,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

However, by the time Kim got the warrant request, the FBI had allegedly made preparations to seize the contents inside the deposit boxes.

In the summer of 2020, Matthew Moon, a high-ranking FBI agent from Los Angeles, asked Jessie Murray, chief of the FBI’s asset forfeiture unit in Los Angeles, whether Murray’s team was “capable of handling a possible large-scale seizure” of safety deposit boxes of U.S. Private Vault, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Murray said yes. In late 2020 and early 2021, Murray joined a conference call to plan the seizure operation. A memo was issued by FBI agent Lynne Zellhart to fellow agents describing the procedures for carrying out the raid.

The memo, which was approved by Moon, asked agents to assign ID numbers to “all cash” found inside the deposit boxes to be catalogued in the Consolidated Asset Tracking System, which the agency uses to organize forfeitures.

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Robbed by Law Enforcement

I am a fan of bad television.  I admit it.  I even DVR it.  I watch an awful show on the National Geographic Channel every week about Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and how they intercept drugs and birds and food and other contraband from people arriving from abroad into the airports of New York, Atlanta and Miami. 

I was watching an episode this week where an elderly Korean man arrived at JFK airport in New York with a few hundred dollars in his pocket.

For no apparent reason, he was pulled into secondary for a more comprehensive search.  When the CBP officer went through the man’s wallet, he found four cashier’s checks, dated years earlier, that totaled $136,000.  The man said that it was his life savings, he had been carrying it around for years, and that he had forgotten that the checks were on him. 

Tough luck, CBP said.  The money belongs to the government now.  That’s civil asset forfeiture.

The man was never charged with a crime.  But he still loses his life savings.  That’s the way we do things in the United States.

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Rochester woman fights to get back $8K seized in raid; she was not charged, no drugs found

In October 2020, Rochester police raided the West Main Street apartment of Cristal Starling and her then-boyfriend, who was suspected of dealing drugs.

No drugs were found, but police seized $8,040 in currency that Starling says was hers. Her boyfriend was arrested based on drugs found at another home, but he was later acquitted of the charges.

Starling has been trying to get her money back since the acquittal. She’s still trying.

The nonprofit Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, plans an appeal to a federal court, seeking to reverse a judge’s decision that federal and local police can keep Starling’s money. Starling’s case, Institute attorneys say, is typical of many forfeiture cases in the country: The money is not an overwhelming amount and the administrative process so convoluted that people who lose their money simply give up.

“This is very common where it’s a small amount of money,” said Institute attorney Seth Young.  “You don’t hire a lawyer and the maze of forfeiture procedures trips up a person who represents themselves and the person ends up losing their money.”

Starling tried, without the aid of a lawyer, to chase down her seized money. She also lost use of two cars, which were also taken then later returned. She had to pay for a rental car during those weeks, she said.

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THE STATEN ISLAND district attorney’s use of the highly controversial Clearview face recognition system included attempts to dig up the social media accounts of homicide victims and was paid for with equally controversial asset forfeiture cash, according to city records provided to The Intercept.

Clearview has garnered international attention and intense criticism for its simple premise: What if you could instantly identify anyone in the world with only their picture? Using billions of images scraped from social media sites, Clearview sells police and other governmental agencies the ability to match a photo to a name using face recognition, no search warrant required — a power civil libertarians and privacy advocates say simply places too much unsupervised power in the hands of police.

The use of Clearview by the Staten Island district attorney’s office was first reported by Gothamist, citing city records obtained by the Legal Aid Society. Subsequent records procured via New York State Freedom of Information Law request and provided to The Intercept now confirm the initial concerns about the tool’s largely unsupervised use by prosecutors. According to spokesperson Ryan Lavis, the DA’s office “completely stopped utilizing Clearview as an investigative tool last year.”

Yet the documents provide new information about how Staten Island prosecutors used the notorious face recognition tool and show that the software was paid for with funds furnished by the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program. The program lets state and local police hand seized cash and property over to a federal law enforcement agency, whereupon up to 80 percent of the proceeds are then sent back the original state or local department to pocket.

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What Happened When New Mexico Ended Civil Asset Forfeiture?

In 2015, New Mexico scrapped its civil asset forfeiture laws and replaced them with a criminal process requiring a conviction before forfeiture can commence. Law enforcement lobbyists warned that ending civil forfeiture would cause crime to skyrocket. So, what actually happened?

In a nutshell, nothing.

When the legislature was debating the 2015 reforms, law enforcement came out with dire warnings. The New Mexico Department of Public safety claimed that ending civil forfeiture would have “a negative impact on public safety” and could trigger a “reduction in criminal investigations.” In the bill analysis, the department testified, “This bill directly jeopardizes the most basic and fundamental key to successful narcotics investigations.”

The chair of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association simply asserted, “You’ll get less law enforcement,” without civil asset forfeiture.

It didn’t turn out that way.

The Institute for Justice compared crime rates in neighboring Texas and Colorado for its Policing for Profit report and determined that “New Mexico’s overall crime rate did not rise following the implementation of strong forfeiture reform in 2015, nor did arrest rates drop.”

In fact, the overall trend in New Mexico’s offense rate was “even flatter than those for the control states.”

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Innocent Elderly Woman Pulled Over for No Reason as Cops Steal Her Life Savings, Prescription Medicine and Mock Her

In December 2021, Jeanetta Jones, 62, had harmed no one, committed no crime, and was simply driving home when she was targeted by officers with the the notoriously corrupt Brookside Police Department in Jefferson County, Alabama. By the end of the hour-long stop, Jones would be robbed of her life savings, her medicine stolen, and she would be publicly humiliated by the people who claim to protect society.

For decades now, federal government and their cronies in law enforcement have been carrying out theft of the citizenry on a massive scale using Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF).

The 1980’s-era laws were designed to drain resources from powerful criminal organizations, but CAF has become a tool for law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to steal money and property from countless innocent people.

As Jones’ case illustrates, insidious police departments will use this “tool” as a means of preying on elderly innocent women to “legally” rob them on the side of the road. All the while, these agents of the state think they are the good guys.

On the day she was stopped, Jones was driving home just after 2 p.m. when, according to her recent lawsuit, officers pulled her over for no reason. When Jones asked the officers why they pulled her over, they responded by telling her that they could pull over anyone they wanted.

For the next hour, police would launch a fishing expedition in an attempt to rob Jones of any and all of her valuables. Using an unauthorized search, police would find $5,000 in cash in Jones’ vehicle — which she told them was her life savings. They would also find her prescription medicine.

By the end of the illegal search and seizure, Jones would be robbed of her life savings and her prescription medicine she needed for pain. When she begged the officers to return her property, they responded by mocking the elderly woman.

“She requested the return of her money and medication,” the lawsuit says. “They refused to return either and laughed at her, telling the plaintiff they could do whatever they wanted.”

When looking through the history of the Brookside police department, Jones lawsuit is one of many and their attitudes during her stop reflect exactly why that is.

As reports:

The lawsuit is the 13th filed against Brookside and its police department – or one for every 96 residents in the tiny north Jefferson County town. It claims Jones was falsely arrested and imprisoned, and that her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated. It seeks damages.

After she was robbed on the roadside, the perpetrators let her go and she was not charged with a crime.

“They didn’t give her a receipt for it. They didn’t arrest her for it. They just took it,” Roger Appell, Jones’ attorney said. “When they were leaving with her money and her prescription medicine, she asked them why are you doing this to us? Why are you doing this to me? And they looked at her and said because we can.”

“That seemed like to be nothing but a shakedown,” Jones said describing the traffic stop.

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