This week a series of stories in The Washington Post described the threat that civil forfeiture and the war on drugs pose to innocent drivers carrying large amounts of cash. In my latest Forbes column, I highlight three features of forfeiture law and five Supreme Court decisions that have made it easy for cops to take money from motorists. Here is how the piece starts:
One afternoon in August 2012, Mandrel Stuart was driving with his girlfriend into Washington, D.C., when a Fairfax County cop pulled him over on Interstate 66, ostensibly because the windows of his SUV were too dark. Lacking the device necessary to check whether the tinting of the windows exceeded the legal limit, Officer Kevin Palizzi instead cited Stuart for having a video running within his line of sight. While Palizzi was filling out the summons, another officer arrived with a drug-detecting dog. Claiming the dog alerted to the left front bumper and wheel of Stuart's GMC Yukon, the cops searched the car and found $17,550 in cash, which they kept, assuming that it must be related to the illegal drug trade.
Stuart, who had planned to use that money to buy equipment and supplies for his barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Virginia, was astonished that a routine traffic stop could so easily turn into grand theft. But as Washington Post reporters Michael Sallah, Robert O'Harrow Jr., and Steven Rich explain in a revealing and troubling series of stories that ran this week, taking Stuart's hard-earned money was perfectly legal, thanks to civil forfeiture laws that turn cops into highway robbers.