Prisons

Forfeiting Sense

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In 1996, some Missouri highway troopers stopped a speeding Volkswagen Golf. One thing led to another, and before long they were searching the car. When they found $24,000 in cash stored by the battery, they decided they were dealing with drug dealers and seized both the money and the vehicle. In early 1999, the latter was auctioned for $5,400 to Jeffrey Chappell and his mother Helen.

Two months later, a mechanic found another $82,000 hidden in the gas tank. He called the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the government took the money. The Chappells are taking the matter to court.

"I bought the car 'as is,'" Jeffrey explains, "and the law is very clear. If I had bought the car from a used car dealer, the money would be mine. It seems that the law applies to everyone except the government." What's more, if the authorities decide that the cash is drug money, the cops could seize the car, without compensation, yet again–even though no one suspects the Chappells of being involved in the drug trade.

Meanwhile, the original $24,000 seems to be lost in the bowels of the federal beast: No one's sure who has it. And the car's original owners? They were never charged with any crime and are free to this day.