When he visited relatives in Cincinnati the winter before last, Charles Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, took with him $11,000 that he had saved from wages, financial aid, and family gifts because he did not want to lose it. He did not count on the armed robbers at the airport, who took every last cent as he was about to board a flight back to Orlando in February 2014. Adding insult to injury, the thieves were cops, who justified confiscating Clarke's life savings by claiming his luggage and cash smelled like pot.
More than a year later, Clarke is still trying to get his money back, and now he has help from the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm that has been fighting this sort of forfeiture abuse for years. While Clarke admits that he was a recreational pot smoker, he says he was never involved in the marijuana trade. "I'm not a drug dealer," he told Vox's German Lopez. "I never have been."
But the federal prosecutors who are pursuing forfeiture of Clarke's money do not have to prove he was a drug dealer. If the case goes to trial, it is enough for them to show by a preponderance of the evidence—a much lower standard than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a criminal conviction—that the money had something to do with marijuana, whether it came from selling the drug or was intended to buy it. Meanwhile, the government keeps the cash based on "probable cause that it was proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in an illegal drug transaction," and the burden is on Clarke to recover it.
"Carrying cash is not a crime," says Insitute for Justice attorney Darpana Sheth. "No one should lose their life savings when no drugs or evidence of any crime are found on them or their belongings." I.J. notes that the number of seizures by police at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport exploded from a couple dozen a year in the late 1990s to nearly 100, totaling $2 million, in 2013. By pursuing forfeiture under federal law through the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Program, the airport cops can keep up to 80 percent of the loot while letting the feds do most of the work.
"Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Charles," says Renée Flaherty, another I.J. lawyer. "Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs."