Civil Asset Forfeiture

The FBI Seized Almost $1 Million From This Family—and Never Charged Them With a Crime

"It's completely changed my belief in fairness," says Amy Sterner Nelson.


Carl Nelson and Amy Sterner Nelson's pre-pandemic lives look a lot different than the ones they live now. There are the obvious ways, and then there are the not so obvious ways, like the fact that they sold their house and their car, liquidated their retirement funds, and moved their family of six from a comfortable West Seattle home to Amy's sister's basement after the FBI seized almost $1 million from them in May 2020.

"We went from living a life where we were both working full-time to provide for our four daughters to really figuring out how we were going to make it month to month," Amy tells me. "It's completely changed my belief in fairness."

The bureau took funds from nearly every corner of the Nelsons' world, including, for instance, the savings Amy racked up from her decade as a practicing attorney and her later efforts as head of The Riveter, the co-working start-up she founded. But the FBI never even suspected Amy of committing any crime. It was Carl they were investigating—a probe that has not resulted in a single charge against him almost two years later.

In April 2020, agents showed up at the Nelsons' home and informed them that Carl—a former real estate transaction manager for Amazon—was under investigation for allegedly depriving the tech behemoth of his "honest services." In plainer terms, they accused him of showing favor to certain developers and securing them deals in exchange for illegal kickbacks. "That never happened and is exactly why I've fought as long and hard as I have," he says. "It's that simple."

Whether or not the FBI has come to that conclusion is still a mystery; its years-long investigation into Carl's alleged fraud has not yielded an indictment. Yet no such thing was necessary for the federal government to wreck the Nelsons' lives, costing them their home, their community, their jobs, their girls' place in their Seattle school, and their security for the future.

Perhaps more vexing: The FBI has, in some sense, subtly conceded that it didn't need to do any of the above to complete their investigation or to hamstring any supposed criminal operation run by Carl. Last week, the government agreed to a settlement: Of the original approximately $892,000 it seized, it will return $525,000, while Amy and Carl forfeit about $109,000. (The remaining sum has been depleted by court fees.)

"It's hard," says Amy, who is trying to recoup some lost assets via a GoFundMe. "Not much has changed for us." She notes that Carl is still a defendant in a massive federal lawsuit against Amazon, and they accepted the deal so that they'd have money for attorneys' fees. She adds that "it feels like the beginning of some justice." In their case, justice looks like losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They're not alone. There was the Indiana man whose car was seized. And the Kentucky man whose car was seized. And the Massachusetts woman whose car was seized. And the Louisiana man whose life savings were seized. And the Texas man whose life savings were seized. And the countless Californians whose money and random personal possessions were seized. Sometimes the money is returned—often only when a defendant manages to lawyer up for a civil suit. Sometimes only part of it is. Sometimes none of it is. "Civil forfeiture is quite common," says Dan Alban, an attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm that often litigates similar cases. "The fact that the government can do this can obviously ruin lives, and it can ruin lives without anyone being convicted of a crime, without anyone even being charged with a crime."

Alban calls civil forfeiture a "high-pressure tactic." It's one of many the government uses, paralyzing defendants and sometimes stripping them of any ability to stick up for themselves. This is something Amy knows first-hand now. "If you can't afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself," she says, "it becomes complicated."

It's also lucrative. State, local, and federal governments have seized $68.8 billion via civil forfeiture over the last 20 years, according to a recent report by IJ. "The vast majority of seizures and forfeitures…are driven by the profit incentive," says Alban. "In most states and at the federal level, police and prosecutors get to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds. So they just have a very strong incentive to go out and seize whatever they can and try to forfeit it so that they can supplement their budget." Those assets then find their way into police slush funds, where they may be spent on things like submachine guns, parking tickets, or cash withdrawals that no one seems to be able to explain. They're also sometimes used illegally on things like gym equipment and Fitbits.

The forfeiture isn't the only thing that the Nelsons feel they've lost, nor is it the only intimidation tactic they believe the government has used in an attempt to strong-arm Carl into buckling. During our conversation, the only time Amy cries is when recounting the months she spent waking up before sunrise, getting her four young daughters ready, and driving them for an hour each morning to a faraway park. The reason: In the case that the government made good on the criminal indictment it had threatened, Carl asked if he could turn himself in so his daughters wouldn't see the arrest. The FBI refused.

"Even talking to you now, Billy, now that we have our money back, now that the government has said, 'We don't believe these are the proceeds of a crime,'" says Amy, "I am frightened of retaliation. I am frightened of saying anything. Because this is incredibly scary."

NEXT: Students Strip Searched for Vaping Devices

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 or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Fuck the FBI.

      1. [JOIN NOW] I am making a real GOOD MONEY ($200 to $300 / hr.) online from my laptop. Last month I got cheek of nearly 30,000$, this online work is simple and straightforward, don’t have to go office, Its home online job. hhj32 You become independent after joining this job. I really thanks to my friend who refer me this:-

    1. Funny. I support the civil forfeiture of the assets of the tech billionaires for their ill gotten gains. I support the civil forfeiture of all woke schools for tax fraud, promising education, and delivering indoctrination.

  2. What have we learned?

    First, never cancel your Amazon Prime account, or there will be retaliation.

    Second, if only everyone could get robbed by the man, we'd finally have enough support to end this horrible practice.

    1. It is astonishing that Americans have to be caught up in it before they realize what "fairness" means. There are stories everywhere, but they only believe when it happens to them.

  3. She must be evil, she is sing gofundme instead of givesendgo.

    (interesting side note about Google spell checker; it flagged both funding sites, but only has a suggestion for gofundme, to capitalize it. It has no idea what a givesendgo is)

    1. It has no idea what a givesendgo is

      Just for the moment.

  4. Guess what else the FBI did

    1. Plot and fund more domestic terrorist plans than any group in the US?

    2. Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

      1. Well, they’ve done Gestapo, they’ve done Waffen SS….so yeah.

  5. Justice isn't (or shouldn't be) a partisan issue. It's very disheartening to see that a majority of Congress can't sit down and reform the forfeiture laws. Again, as in so many other issues, the "War on Drugs" raises its ugly head. "Soft on Drugs" is still a third-rail issue for most congressaholes.

    1. How about the honest services fraud amendments to the mail and wire fraud statutes? How can you ever clear yourself of having deprived someone of "honest services", when there are no standards as to how much discretion you have in favoring A over B, or how much favor you're allowed to be shown in return? It could criminalize ever tipping an employee. It could criminalize employees of two businesses choosing each other as vendors if doing so made their jobs easier or made them look better to their employers.

      1. I had never heard of "honest services". If so, then Bill Gates should be sued for how he acquired what came to be MS-DOS.

    2. Americans get the government they vote for

      1. No we didn't.

        1. Yes, about half the voters voted for Democrats and progressives. Whether they technically won or not doesn't matter, that's far too many.

          In a healthy society, progressives should get maybe 10-20% of the votes.

    3. If we allow the democrat party’s continued existence then this will never end. They will stop any reform.

  6. Like I’m going to donate through gofundme.

  7. We must prohibit government from initiating force with a 28th amendment, "Government shall not initiate force."

    1. The Right of the People to refuse medical intervention shall not be infringed.

      ...I've really be thinking about the 28th A...

      1. That kind of language hasn't stopped government from restricting the right to keep and bear arms.

    2. I thought the 28th Amendment forbade public officials from revealing the identities of masked superheros?

  8. Lawyers screwing lawyers...kinda kismet if ya ask me.

  9. Oh, my bad, I thought this post was about the seizing of funds by the Canadian Government.

    1. That's fine though, it's an Emergency. See the truckers want to end the mask and vax mandates, like most US states and Canadian provinces are doing now.

  10. "It's hard," says Amy, who is trying to recoup some lost assets via a GoFundMe. "Not much has changed for us."

    Yeah no.

  11. Asset forfeiture is a blatant violation of the 5A and, unless arguably the 4A. The fact is that we shouldn't need the legislature to change this, the courts should have put a stop to this long ago.

    1. As I understand it, asset forfeiture originates as a way to forfeit property whose owner is unknown. That use makes sense. But if you know who the owner is, you should need to prove they broke the law.

      1. In this case, they DON'T know who the property belongs to.
        - Nelson took millions in kickbacks from a company that was doing business with the division in Amazon he ran.
        - So Nelson (and his wife) are on the hook for whatever dollar amount can be shown he earned that way.

        Amazon files it's suit to try to get some or all that money. The basis for Amazon's civil suit sounds shifty. But if it fails, the money likely isn't going back to Nelson, because it is considered proceeds from a crime (like drug profits or money from selling stolen goods.)
        - Sadly, the courts are backed up right now. (I got a friend who's niece was stabbed and set on fire -burned to death- two years ago. He killer still doesn't have a court date.) So a lack of conviction does not mean it won't happen.
        - The criminal case is pretty open-and-shut. The kickback accounts are in the defendents names, and they tracked the kickbacks in spreadsheets.

        In THIS case, temporary asset forfeiture would prevent Nelson from benefiting from the proceeds from criminal activity, by either spending it or moving it overseas.

        Asset forfeiture without even attempt to arrest or convict is a nasty problem in this country. But this case is not an example of that.

        1. Wait, you mean a Reason reporter just interviewed one side and ran with it? Surely the esteemed staff of this renowned paper would not make such an amateurish mistake...


        2. "...Nelson took millions in kickbacks from a company that was doing business with the division in Amazon he ran..."

          So far, as a statement of fact, we have Amazon's and your claims. Any further evidence?

          1. Well, it certainly sounds more plausible than “FBI randomly picks victim out of phone book and takes their life savings because they can”

            In any case, you obviously can’t trust Reason reporting.

            1. Pretty sure Amazon filed a complaint.
              No fan of the FBI, but even less of a fan of punishment without proof of guilt.

            2. Well, it would be plausible if not for the fact that after 2+ years of investigation, the FBI has still not filed official charges against Nelson and that FBI has agreed to give back most of the money.

              1. I’m not defending what the FBI may have done. I’m saying that Reason cannot be trusted as a source and that i will reserve judgment until a credible source reports on this.

                1. That is kind of the point. We can't trust either side here and that's the problem with asset forfeiture. Too often, and once is too often, these cases end with no charges. If they have a case, to keep the money from disappearing, have a court appointed executor monitor the funds, giving the suspects the chance to argue against it, until a court case can be filed, but for a finite time. This would force the cops to provide evidence that a crime was committed, well not depriving innocent people of their personal property.

                  1. Not depriving them of the property without a day in court. I didn't complete my thought.

        3. I'm at a loss as to how you can conclude the non-existent criminal case here is "pretty open-and-shut." Concerning this story, I admittedly only know what's in this article. But based on it, there is NO criminal case here at all. At present, no one's been charged, despite the Fed's non-criminal seizure (read "judicially-sanctioned theft") of almost one million dollars without bringing a single criminal charge, much less proving anything.

          Additionally, the FBI certainly does, or minimally should, know who the alleged kickbacks were paid by, and therefore "belong to." The agents or financial analysts with the Bureau would have traced them from their source or sources; this is about as pedestrian as it gets in a federal fraud investigation. So the idea that the Feds "don't know who the property belongs to" somehow serves as a basis for government theft is simply wrong. Fund tracing is one of the very first things that would be done to prove fraud -- and yet no one's been charged. In other words, there presently is no criminal case based on the receipt of kickbacks.

          In summary, Nelson has not been charged by the government with taking any kickbacks, much less proven to have done so, and yet their life savings have been vaporized based on civil forfeiture allegations. That's one of the central points of this article -- he has not been indicted, no criminal charges have been brought (and certainly not proven), and yet the Feds took the Nelson's money. If "considered proceeds from a crime," then the government should be required to demonstrate as much before taking it, which clearly hasn't been done here and appears to be conceded by the government in agreeing to return the bulk of the seized funds. You may see this differently when they come for your bank accounts based on allegations in a private civil lawsuit.

          And last, the Fed's refusal to allow self-surrender in what seems like the unlikely event of indictment is, legally speaking, chicken%$it. Unless Nelson is a flight risk or danger to the community (which seems unlikely after what looks like a years-long investigation), forcing the family to live in fear of his 6:00 am arrest in front of their children amounts to government scare tactics and abuse that all of us should expect to be well beneath federal law enforcement. Unfortunately, that's the direction our DOJ has chosen to move.

        4. "The criminal case is pretty open-and-shut."

          If only the government had some method of prosecuting criminal cases like that...

  12. Shouldn't the Justice Department start prosecuting the actual crooks, the one taking money from people without a conviction?

    1. You mean cops and TSA inspectors?

      1. He could mean the IRS . . .

  13. So it's a tax, not a fine?
    I'm on my way to sit on the bench!
    *Seal clap*

  14. "We went from living a life where we were both working full-time to provide for our four daughters to really figuring out how we were going to make it month to month," Amy tells me. "It's completely changed my belief in fairness."

    Amy has to understand woke fairness. Anyone who has a million dollars commits the crime of inequality, and justice requires that the government seize those assets.

    1. Not "anyone". No one is confiscating Soros's fortune, or any other woke celebrity or VIP. The 500 or so Congressmen and Senators that somehow became multimillionaires on salaries of under $200,000 have nothing to worry about - not even the Republicans. Hollywood and sports stars won't be bothered.

      1. Exactly. One rule for them, another for the plebs (or anyone that sticks their necks out too much). Where are the supposedly liberty loving Republican politicians? They must be too busy virtue signalling over covid mandates.

  15. I wonder how she feels about her choice of profession after getting on the other end of transaction that once earned her a great deal of money. Is it ever right that one must hire a third party to defend oneself from one's government?

  16. How disgraceful and corrupt.

  17. So, Big Tech sent the FBI after two people to render them insolvent and destroy their lives. Can Reason remind us again how the tech companies are private enterprise and should remain completely unregulated?

  18. What a news!

  19. Looters gonna loot. Fuck everything about Hoover's lousy little shakedown operation.


  20. #AbolishTheFBI

  21. The full faith and credit. . . . Shouldn’t Elizabeth Warren be pursuing the greedy fucks in the FBI.

  22. Land of the Free / Home of the Brave

  23. I'm not under any illusion that Chinese or even Russian agents haven't infiltrated every aspect of our government. They're probably getting comprehensive reports on ALL our vulnerabilities on a daily basis.

    Look at the amateurish operation the FBI run. Why are they investigating phantom nooses in a nascar garage, based on nothing more than one person's account? Their infiltration effort on conservative demonstration was so laughably bad that randos with smart phones figured them out.

    A Chinese spy drove around Feinsten for years. Female agents reportedly slept with out politicians. Gee, how did our vaunted federal police miss all that? But because they were nominally "anti trump", the left considers them a hero, while every cop on the street hunts blacks for sport.

    Can someone prove to me that a foreign spy well versed in our culture war couldn't manipulate the FBI into fabricating reasons to spy and prosecute on our citizens, just like they did to Flynn? Everyone knows how witch hunts can be initiated in this country, many black people paint hate symbols knowing just that.

  24. Will this 'libertarian" blog ever get around to commenting on the fascist thuggery going on in Canada?

    People are having their bank accounts frozen and confiscated simply for donating money to a protest.

    And speaking of topics this blog ignores, perhaps the "libertarians" here could give a fraction as much attention to the murder of two female protestors on Jan 6 as they routinely do to the deaths of drug dealers at the hands of the police.

    1. "And speaking of topics this blog ignores, perhaps the "libertarians" here could give a fraction as much attention to the murder of two female protestors on Jan 6 as they routinely do to the deaths of drug dealers at the hands of the police."

      You might be interested in the opinion of one of our lefty shit commenters on that issue:

      February.6.2022 at 6:02 pm
      “How many officers were there to stop Ashlee Babbitt and the dozens of people behind her from getting into the legislative chamber to do who knows what?...”

      Yep, murder as a preventative measure in case the murdered party might do something in the future to which the lefty shit objects.

  25. Thanks for your sharing! The information your share is very useful to me and many people are looking for them just like me! Also visit here for vitamins for childrens

  26. “There are always three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. It would be nice if Reason's reporters would embrace that concept. It weakens your credibility when you post such a blatantly one sided story. It's not constructive in any way.

  27. Be careful who you give money to on gofundme, they will come after you if you support something later determined to be wrongthinking

  28. This is one of the weaker cases I've read to argue against forfeiture. The sum involved appears to be $658,000 spread over 9 different bank accounts. For all we know they could have had $12.00 in the bank that suddenly mushroomed to close to $700,000 over 9 accounts. It's unclear what triggered the FBI investigation. Why did they need the $650,000 to work full time etc and pay their living expenses and end up in a basement? Could it be no one wants to hire 'crooks'? It's such a one sided story/report, it's impossible to feel or decide anything one way or the other.

  29. In my experience, it is not the FBI that demands the arrest and perp walk. It's the Assistant United States Attorney who asks the court to issue a summons to a defendant instead of an arrest warrant. This is not to exonerate the FBI... the USAO and FBI are two peas in a pod. Just for accuracy...

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.