Civil Asset Forfeiture

Judge Threatens to Jail North Carolina Town Officials for Seizing Man's Money, Refusing To Return It

A misdemeanor marijuana charge leads to an attempt to take $17,000.

|

A district court judge in North Carolina is threatening to jail one town's officials if they don't return nearly $17,000 in cash they seized out of a man's rental car during an investigation.

It looks as though an asset forfeiture attempt by police in Mooresville, North Carolina, has gone awry, and we should all cheer Iredell County District Court Judge Christine Underwood on as she tries to hold officials to account.

According to media reports from the Mooresville Tribune and news station WSOCTV, Jermaine Sanders was staying at a hotel in the town in November when he left his room and found police searching his car. Police say they found half an ounce of marijuana and $16,761 in cash. They seized both, charged Sanders with misdemeanor drug possession, but then sent the cash to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

When Sanders lawyered up and attempted to fight to get the cash back, claiming that the money had no relationship to the crime involved, Mooresville responded that it was no longer in possession of the cash and therefore was not responsible for giving the money back.

This did not sit well with Underwood, and according to Sanders' lawyer, Ashley Cannon, Mooresville officials cut a cashier's check for the cash to send it to CBP just one day before the judge ruled against the town and ordered it to return the money.

But the city did not. And so, several months later, on Feb. 10, the case came back to Underwood, and she held up the previous ruling and ordered Mooresville to "give this man his money." She found the city in contempt of her order and is giving them seven business days to comply. She told the city's attorney at last week's hearing that she was not afraid to jail town commissioners, the police chief, or anybody else responsible for keeping Sanders from getting his money back.

Mooresville officials announced Monday they were appealing the decision and responded:

The Town of Mooresville is disappointed with the Court's recent decision in the Sanders case. We believe the seizure by our police department was lawfully executed and the funds rightfully turned over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at their directive, pursuant to established federal law. The Town did file an appeal yesterday, which by law stays enforcement of the order until the Court of Appeals reviews the merits of this case. The Town does not plan to further comment at this time while an active criminal case and this civil matter is ongoing.

It's great to see a judge taking a city or police department to task for rushing to try to seize a suspect's money or assets in a forfeiture scheme when there's no evidence that the cash was connected to a crime. It's not a crime to carry large amounts of cash in your car, but under civil asset forfeiture systems, law enforcement agencies claim that having this cash is evidence of drug smuggling or other illegal activities, and then they attempt to keep the money for themselves, even when they're unable to prove the underlying crime.

The involvement of the federal government here may seem strange for anybody unfamiliar with civil asset forfeiture, but there's an explanation. North Carolina actually has strict restrictions on the police's ability to make somebody forfeit cash and assets in criminal cases. Under state law, prosecutors have to convict somebody of a crime before being able to take their assets in most cases, and the police don't get the money. It all gets shunted over to the schools. Therefore, this should eliminate the incentive for police to exaggerate cases (or just lie) to create a reason to seize somebody's cash or property.

But, there's a big federal loophole, and that's why CBP is involved. The Department of Justice's (DOJ) "Equitable Sharing Program" allows local law enforcement agencies to "partner" with federal agencies for crime-fighting programs, funnel the seized assets through either the DOJ or the Department of the Treasury, and then send a share of the money back from the feds to towns, bypassing North Carolina's restrictions on asset forfeiture. Mooresville may not have Sanders' cash right now, but eventually, under the federal program, a chunk of that money would be returned to Mooresville Police Department.

And so, the Institute for Justice notes, even though police in North Carolina don't make money off of state-level forfeiture, law enforcement agencies across the state have nevertheless raked in an estimated $293 million in forfeiture revenue from federal programs over the past 19 years.

It's great that a judge has taken notice of this deliberate attempt to bypass state protections from unjustified asset seizure, but North Carolina has a systemic problem with its forfeiture protections that must be addressed.

NEXT: Biden Says Drug Users Shouldn't Be Jailed but Won't Do Anything To Stop It

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This sounds serious. Where is the union to defend these fine upstanding LEOs?

    1. Unions aren’t big down South and that may be the case with the Boys in Blue too. But where the Unions may be missing, the “Good Ol’Boys Network” makes up for it.

    2. The individual officers are not being sued and as usual, it’s the mayors, town councils, county attorneys and AGs that drive the efforts to steal money from ordinary citizens who carry more cash than the average homeless guy. The entire asset forfeiture scam needs to be cleaned up at the federal level. No assets should ever be permanently seized until a felony conviction has been accomplished. Ever. No more seizing your car because you let your brother in law borrow it and he stopped off at the massage parlor or got caught with a couple joints in his pocket.

      1. If I didn’t know that this sort of thing happens routinely, I’d think you were crazy, or paranoid, to even type these words. It’s so far out of all moral and constitutional guidelines that people just don’t believe it happens…but it does.

      2. No assets should never be seized unless it can be proven they were obtained illegally.

  2. Judge didn’t get his cut.

  3. Good for the judge.

    1. As they used to say on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: “Here come de Judge! Here come de Judge! Order in the courtroom! Here come de Judge!”

    2. Save your praise until his money is returned, or people are behind bars. Until then, nothing has changed.

    3. Better if he’d seized personal assets of the officials to repay the stolen money. That is the minimum needed to give officials an incentive to obey the law.

  4. OT: RIP Rush.

    1. While I echo the sentiment, I must say I haven’t listened to Rush since he started taking himself so seriously and stopped being funny. Sometime around 1990 if I remember correctly.

      1. Yup. He went big on ‘print the legend’. He will be remembered more for his inspiration of nutjobs than his opposition to the lefty takeover.

  5. So when will the judge asset forfeiture all of the police cars, weapons, office equipment, bank accounts, and all the individual property of the county, and all assets of all the county officials to hold in evidence until the case (which the county cannot now afford to pursue), is settled?

  6. Will all seven of them be there?

  7. She told the city’s attorney at last week’s hearing that she was not afraid to jail town commissioners, the police chief, or anybody else responsible for keeping Sanders from getting his money back.

    The cops work for the town commissioners and the police chief. So while the judge has made her ruling, there is no one to enforce it.

    1. She could borrow a whole lot of troops from the DC occupation army.

    2. County Sherriff’s department. Also, in most US states, the county governments are strictly creatures of the state and have authority to enforce state law. The local DA is a county official who enforces state law, so the county district judge could probably also get the state police involved.

      1. Have you ever heard of this happening? Seriously. A judge ruling against government officials and enforcers, and having them arrested? Seems like a serious breach of professional courtesy.

        1. “Have you ever heard of this happening?”

          Not particularly. That doesn’t make it a bad thing.

          “Seems like a serious breach of professional courtesy.”

          I am highly skeptical of the proposition that such “professional courtesy” isn’t a bad thing that needs to be destroyed.

        2. Such “professional courtesy” violates the equal protections clause. Government entities regularly ignore court orders because there are no direct consequences, but contempt of court should result in direct fines and jail time, just like it would for a company or individual that sought to play such games.

        3. I’m not sure about that but I’ve personally called the sheriff to run the city police, who were trespassing, off my property. They came out and did it.

          1. That’s interesting.

        4. You’re right. Sharks generally don’t eat other sharks. Judges and other attorneys all belong to the same union so there’s not supposed to be any of this unseemly friction.

        5. “Seems like a serious breach of professional courtesy.”

          LOL, isnt that most of the actual problem with police (and firemen)?

    3. District court judges can call on federal marshals to enforce their decisions. They are not limited by the whims of local cronies.

      1. State district court judge, not a federal district court judge.

    4. State police?

  8. It seems to me that Sanders must have had a really shitty car.

    1. Why, because they didn’t seize the car? It was a rental.

      1. Ah, perhaps that is the reason. From an evidentiary perspective, it would seem to make sense to seize the vehicle if it was being used to transport and sell drugs. Perhaps. On the other hand, I do not think there was any “evidentiary” interest in anything other than the money. But, they probably smoked the weed too.

        1. Why did this knucklehead leave 17 grand in his car in the first place?

          1. Does it matter? Is it illegal to carry cash in your car? How much? $10? $500?

            Never understood this argument, and it always manifest itself during the holidays. Some thief smashes a car window to steal items in a car, and people blame the car owner for leaving their purchases in the car.

  9. Mooresville responded that it was no longer in possession of the cash and therefore was not responsible for giving the money back.

    “We deposited in the town treasury, Your Honor. That cash per se is *gone*!”

    1. County sheriff. She is a county judge and these actions are typically enforced by sheriff’s deputies anyway.

      1. Also potentially by the state police, since the county DAs and the County district judges are the primary court level enforcers of state law.

    2. “So where is the money?”

      “It’s parked outside you honor”

  10. She found the city in contempt of her order and is giving them seven business days to comply.

    I never understand this kind of patience in contempt situations.

    “Seven *minutes*, motherfuckers!”

    1. Better still “nobody leaves this courtroom until the messenger with the certified check shows up”.

    2. They’re trying desperately to get the money back from their bookie.

    3. I agree, but, man. Baby steps. At least it’s *something*.

    4. In this case, there are procedures and even laws that have to be observed in order to make payments from the city treasury to comply with the judge’s demand. A judge cannot demand someone break the law. Plus, if the judge does arrest public officials, the backlash will be tremendous. The judge has to have an ironclad case that they were given every ability to pay.

      By overcharging and overdemanding, you give the chance for the criminals to get off scott free

  11. …funnel the seized assets through either the DOJ or the Department of the Treasury

    You mean launder the money, legally.

  12. Jermaine Sanders was staying at a hotel in the town in November when he left his room and found police searching his car

    I believe “his” car was a rental car and therefore the cops were arguing they didn’t need his permission to search the car since it wasn’t his. Which issue had just been raised (and put down) by the Supreme Court in 2018 in the case of Byrd v US so maybe these cops hadn’t yet gotten the word.

    I remember the Byrd case at the time because it seemed patently absurd to say if I borrowed my nephew’s truck to run to Home Depot and came back out to find some homeless guy had taken adverse possession of the truck, I wouldn’t be able to call the cops and demand the guy be removed because it wasn’t my truck.

    1. Qualified immunity! Three years is not long enough for those kinds of drastic changes to percolate through the system.

    2. The cops are obviously assholes here, but there has to be a lot more to this story. For one, this fool had 17k sitting outside in his car. Hotel rooms have vaults for a reason. Two, how did they know to search this specific rental car?
      The town is 15% black, so it’s not like they were just harassing the only black guy in town.
      They knew he had that money, the question is why/how did they know?

    3. “ Byrd v US so maybe these cops hadn’t yet gotten the word.”

      Doesn’t matter if they got the word or not..

      Ignorance of the law is no excuse….unless you’re a cop.

      Police officers need not know the law. In fact, they can claim ignorance. See:

      HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA

  13. I knew a small claims court judge who said his happiest moment was when a jazz clarinet player tried to get medical expenses from the rich frat boys who had beat him up; only a few hundred dollars, but he was out of work for several months while his mouth healed. The cops had refused to prosecute on the grounds of no witnesses. The frat boys all showed up with lawyers and parents, though both were only for intimidation in a small claims court.

    He spent some time writing up his decision, awarding the kid maximum small claims court restitution, I think $15,000, from each frat boy, and I think he said there were six of them. All appealed. All lost their appeals.

    Some judges actually try to do the right thing.

  14. Get’em Judge!!

  15. The town said “it was no longer in possession of the cash” because “officials cut a cashier’s check for the cash to send it to CBP”? I wasn’t aware that a cashier’s check disposed of specific dollar bills. Money is fungible, after all. Seems to me that the proper response is to tell the town, “That’s between you and CBP — good luck getting your money back from them.”

    1. Yes! If they did the wrong thing, give the money back out of the county’s pocket. Retrieving what they wrongly sent to the feds is their problem, not the victim’s.

      1. “But I can’t be required to make restitution, Your Honor! I gave all those stolen goods to my fence!”

        1. ^ that about sums it up.

    2. While money is fungible, civil asset forfeiture is an action against an object rather than the owner of the object. This case would be something like Morrisville vs. $17,000. Its not a forfeiture of the value of the money. It is a forfeiture of those specific bills and coins.

      I haven’t studied it in much detail since 2000. However, back then previous owners had a difficult time establishing standing because the previous owner was not a party to the action.

      This is one of those parts of law that are crazier the more you learn about it.

      1. But they sent a check… So by that logic they sent unrelated money to the feds and must still have the actual money. And if they don’t, they have nothing to charge, and this just stole the money.

        1. The judge agrees that he city is being ridiculous. I am just giving the theory that the government typically argues in these cases (and frequently wins).

          1. Ya, I get that you aren’t defending them, I just think they’ve painted themselves into a corner here cuz that shouldn’t work. Then again some judges do some crazy mental gymnastics to excuse anything, so they might still get away with it in the appeal.

  16. I can see holding the town liable for money damages, and perhaps holding an administrative official in contempt for not following the judge’s order. I’m not sure, though, how you can jail individual town commissioners for (I suppose this is the theory) not voting to return the money. Could you jail a commissioner who voted to return the money but was outvoted? If not, then you would be jailing someone for voting x but not y, and I don’t think the judiciary should have the power to order members of other branches to vote in a particular way, even if the cause is righteous.

    1. It’s not contempt for how they voted, it’s contempt for refusing to comply with a court order. As a body they refused to comply with a legal and moral court order. As near as I can tell, no one on the town council protested the town council’s actions.

  17. I would take a plane out to North Carolina for a vacation of watching the entire city council sit in jail for contempt. Don’t worry, I will bring my own popcorn.

  18. We believe the seizure by our police department was lawfully executed

    What you “believe” doesn’t matter, asshole. You’ve been told by the court that the seizure was illegal, so give the man his money back, you insubordinate motherfuckers.

    -jcr

  19. Seems like the city had plenty of time before now to appeal the ruling.

  20. “The whole good cop/bad cop question can be disposed of much more decisively. We need not enumerate what proportion of cops appears to be good or listen to someone’s anecdote about his Uncle Charlie, an allegedly good cop. We need only consider the following: (1) a cop’s job is to enforce the laws, all of them; (2) many of the laws are manifestly unjust, and some are even cruel and wicked; (3) therefore every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer for laws that are manifestly unjust or even cruel and wicked. There are no good cops.” ~Robert Higgs

  21. “The great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts. Have they no means of resistance? Obviously they have. The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit. The moment the majority decided to overthrow him he would be overthrown. But the majority lacks the resolution; it cannot imagine taking the risks.” ~ H. L. Mencken (1926). “Notes on Democracy,” p. 50, Alfred A. Knopf
    “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.” ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn , The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

  22. Wow! This is like political Jiu-Jitsu, watching the overwhelming might of the government turned against itself! There needs to be more stra-te-gery like this used in defense of liberty!

    1. Might I add, this is how to fight police injustice without destroying civilization. Would-be Antifa and BLM-ers, please take note!

      1. Neither Antifa nor BLM care. Antifa is still rioting and burning to this day in Portland. BLM is under the control of the Democrat Party (notice how their rioting stopped all of a sudden despite nothing having changed). Now, to other groups who are interested in constructive dialogue? Yes, this is the way.

        1. You are correct that the True Believers rioting throughout the nation are beyond help. (Notice I said “would-be Antifa and BLM-ers.”) But I hope this story turns out well for the man whose money was seized and I hope the story dissuades impressionable yoots from joining the mobs. Maybe it’ll take away their desire to run for public office too.

  23. “funnel the seized assets through either the DOJ or the Department of the Treasury, and then send a share of the money back from the feds to towns”

    Isn’t that definition of money laundering?

    1. Nah. When the Government does it, it’s more like dry cleaning.

  24. They didn’t “seize” his money, they stole it. That’s what thieves do, they steal.

    I can’t really oppose forfeiture of cash that can be demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, to be associated with criminal activity but the most rational suggestion I’ve seen is to divert this cash to pay for public defenders, a genuine budgetary need for every jurisdiction.

    Confiscating property is another matter entirely. The police have demonstrated that they are completely untrustworthy, in that they have attempted to steal homes belonging to people who committed no crimes, on the basis that a crime was committed there. This is so egregious that confiscating property, even cars, should simply be banned. If the police were more honest it wouldn’t be necessary to take this step, but they just aren’t.

  25. Let’s see what happens on Thursday February 25th.

    No way this judge incarcerates these guys. But I hope she does if it comes to that.

    1. Well, the day has come and almost gone. So far, I haven’t heard anything new about it. I hope there’s no back-room deal crap to delay the wheels of justice. Must wait and see.

  26. Ask Kamala Harris to weigh in, better yet look at her conviction history. That whole deep state thing…well I’m sure Joe will look into it, after pudding.

  27. Well hell! I saw the picture and clicked, thinking it was a new Remy TSA video. Not that the article wasn’t good. . . .
    It just that there isn’t enough Remy.

  28. Biden could stop the federal money-laundering with a stroke of the pen – but it’s obvious from his entire history that he won’t.

  29. Another prime example of lawyers and judges writing law to benefit themselves at the expense of the public. Secondary benefits go to union members, politicians and bureaucrats. Republicans introduced civil forfeiture laws and law enforcement including lawyers, cops and judges nurtured the amoral theft for a fee – 100%. Democrats were only too happy to continue stealing citizen’s money. Police officers were just ‘following orders, for the last 35 years’ !’ Achtung Schnell ! ooops. that slipped out.

  30. I live in Mooresville and there is no additional news about this as of today, 02/26. I would recommend anyone reading this to check out (and hopefully contribute to) The Institute of Justice. They have taken on and won many cases of citizens who had assets taken from them with no evidence or charge of a crime. It is not illegal to travel with large amounts of cash…probably not a good idea but we have the freedom to do so. In civil forfeiture the burden of proof is not on the govt. to prove your “guilt”–in fact in most cases there is no process and there are no charges! No, it is up the person whose assets were taken to prove their innocence! And this is happening in the United States of America and rationalized by law enforcement as proper…scary as h#ll!

    1. Thanks and much obliged on the update. The Institute For Justice does excellent work, I agree.

      I hope they have a spray can of WD-40 to get the wheels of justice turning. That means either the Mooresville officials give Jermaine Sanders back his money or we should see the Mooresville officials lead out of City Hall in chains.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.