Civil Liberties

Judges Stick Up for Asset Forfeiture Victim

When officers searched Jermaine Sanders' car, they found less than half an ounce of marijuana and seized $17,000 of his money.


Police in Mooresville, North Carolina, found a small amount of marijuana in a man's car and used it to justify seizing nearly $17,000 of his money. Thankfully, a state judge is raising hell over it.

In November, Jermaine Sanders was staying at a hotel in Mooresville when officers searched his car, finding what appeared to be less than half an ounce of marijuana and $16,761 in cash. The cops seized the cash and charged Sanders, who they learned had previously been convicted of felony drug charges in Connecticut, with misdemeanor drug possession.

Sanders' attorney, Ashley Cannon, submitted a motion seeking the return of her client's cash, arguing that he did not consent to the search, that the police did not provide a warrant, and that the money was not related to any criminal activity. Iredell County District Court Judge Deborah Brown agreed and ordered the city to return Sanders' money, but Mooresville officials flouted the order.

The day before Brown made her ruling, the Mooresville Police Department had sent a cashier's check for the same amount they'd taken from Sanders to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The feds had "adopted" the case, taking possession of Sanders' money.

Mooresville turned to the feds because North Carolina law requires convictions for most forfeitures and allocates the proceeds to public schools instead of the police. But police can bypass those rules through "equitable sharing," which allows federal law enforcement agencies to "adopt" forfeiture cases initiated by local cops and complete them under federal law. The feds then send a cut of the seized assets—as much as 80 percent—back to police departments. According to the Institute for Justice, police departments across North Carolina have reaped nearly $300 million from federal equitable sharing during the last two decades.

Even though Mooresville police are responsible for the only charge currently filed against Sanders, they told Cannon she would have to ask the Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP, about getting her client's money back. So she took them back to court.

In February, Iredell County District Court Judge Christine Underwood rejected the city's explanation. She found the city in contempt of court and told Mooresville's lawyers she was ready to jail local officials if they refused to return Sanders' money. The city is appealing.