In my January feature story about drug-detecting dogs, I noted that police have a direct financial interest in dogs that alert on cue or indiscriminately, since alleged traces of illegal substances can be cited as an excuse to seize motorists' money, even though contamination of currency with cocaine and other drugs appears to be pervasive. That is what happened to $1 million in cash that Nebraska state troopers found in the trunk of Rajesh and Marina Dheri's car after they pulled the couple over for speeding last year. ABC News reports that the Dheris consented to a search and that the troopers, after finding a hundred $10,000 stacks of bills bound with hair ties in plastic bags, arrested them on suspicion of drug trafficking. A police dog supposedly confirmed that the money had been in contact with drugs. But it turned out that the money belonged to the Dheris' friend Tara Mishra, a 33-year-old woman from Rancho Cucamonga, California, who had saved it up since she was 18, when she began working as an exotic dancer. The Dheris planned to use Mishra's money to buy a New Jersey nightclub that she and they would run together.
Unlike many other forfeiture stories, this one has a relatively happy ending: Last week U.S. District Judge Bataillon ordered the Nebraska State Patrol to return Mishra's money, plus interest. "The government failed to show a substantial connection between drugs and the money," Bataillon wrote in his ruling. "The dog sniff is inconsequential…The court finds the Dheris' story is credible…Ms. Mishra did have control over the money and directed the Dheris to deliver the money to New Jersey for the purchase of the business."
I say the outcome was "relatively happy" because Mishra and the Dheris were forced to put their business plans on hold for over a year and pay for a legal challenge aimed at getting back the money that the police stole from her. People with less at stake often conclude that it's cheaper just to give up. Short of repealing drug prohibition, the solution to this sort of injustice is abolishing civil forfeiture and requiring a conviction as a condition of confiscating property allegedly tied to a crime.
Addendum: The Institute for Justice notes that "Nebraska is one of only three states that holds the government to the highest possible legal standard of proof in civil forfeiture proceedings, requiring law enforcement to prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt." That probably explains why the cops in this case pursued forfeiture under federal law, which offers weaker protections for innocent owners. Banning such federal "adoption" is another reform that would help curtail forfeiture abuses, as would funneling forfeiture proceeds into the general fund rather than the coffers of police departments and prosecutors' offices.
[Thanks to Joe Kristan for the tip.]