Vera and Apollonia Ward, two sisters from Virginia, were just getting a dog-breeding business off the ground last year when they encountered an unusual setback: The police accused them of laundering drug money and seized more than $17,000 from them.
The Ward sisters were never charged with a crime, though. They had run afoul of civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never charged or convicted of a crime.
Law enforcement groups say civil forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and criminal networks by targeting their illicit revenues. However, civil liberties groups, news outlets, and a broad range of advocacy groups have published numerous reports showing that asset forfeiture lacks due process protections and often targets everyday people rather than cartel lords.
One of those groups, Arizona's Goldwater Institute, a public interest law firm, ended up taking on the Ward sisters' case. The Goldwater Institute recently released a short video on the sisters' ordeal:
Before last year, though, the Ward sisters, like many people, had never heard of civil forfeiture. They had started a business breeding American Bullies. They said they had a very successful first litter and were looking to buy two more dogs for breeding. Last November, they tried to send $17,500 in cash through FedEx to a middleman in California, essentially a dog broker, to scout and purchase two new animals for them.
They said they received an unusual call several days later from someone claiming to be at a FedEx facility, who they later learned was a police officer. The person on the phone asked if there was anything in the package he should know about. No, they said, just the cash.
In follow-up calls, it became clear that they weren't dealing with FedEx customer service but rather the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, which suspected the cash was drug proceeds. It became clear that the police were neither letting the cash go to its destination nor sending it back to the Wards.
"They said they smelled marijuana on the money," Vera Ward says. "We don't smoke. It's not plausible since my sister and I aren't around it."
Not to mention the sisters say they had pulled the money out of the bank several days before they sent it and had receipts to back up their claim.
"We had proof, and they were like, 'No you don't, that's drug money,'" Vera Ward remembers. When the sisters refused to cave and say the money was drug proceeds, they say officers threatened to go after them for money laundering.
When the sisters still refused to admit any connection to drug dealing, the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office seized the money anyway, and the San Joaquin District Attorney's Office moved to forfeit it under California's civil forfeiture laws.
More than half of U.S. states have passed reforms to their civil asset forfeiture laws over the past decade, requiring convictions before property can be forfeited and raising the standard of evidence in forfeiture cases. However, cases like the Wards' still pop up frequently, especially when it comes to cash being moved through airports and along highways, even though traveling domestically with large amounts of cash is perfectly legal.
"Doing research, we found out that [civil forfeiture] was common, especially for innocent people," Vera Ward says, "but it seemed like [police] had the upper hand."
The sizeable amount of cash made it worthwhile for the Wards to find lawyers and fight the seizure. In many smaller cash seizures, the cost of hiring an attorney would make the returns negligible or even a net negative.
After the Wards connected with the Goldwater Institute, prosecutors relented and returned the sisters' money. Still, law enforcement held their cash for six months on accusations that weren't supported by evidence. The delay set their business back, and it decreased their trust in the police, who they say were rude and unprofessional.
"It was a very disheartening and offensive ordeal we had to go through," Apollonia Ward says. "We had to prove we weren't criminals. We had to go through a lot of back and forth, and our lawyers had to stay on top of them to get them to do everything right."