After police raided her apartment, Rochester resident Cristal Starling lost $8,000 to the U.S. government because of a missed deadline, despite never being charged with a crime. But last week, a federal appeals court revived her case.
The public interest law firm representing Starling, the Institute for Justice, says the ruling is a welcome check on civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity without charging the owner with a crime.
"The court recognized what has always been abundantly clear about civil forfeiture: allowing police to pocket the money they take from people who have never been charged with a crime encourages police to take more money from innocent people," Institute for Justice attorney Seth Young said in a press release following the ruling.
Specifically, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that a lower district court erred when it entered a default judgment against Starling's money after she missed one of several filing deadlines to challenge the seizure of her money. Starling will now have the opportunity to contest the seizure in court.
Reason reported last year on Starling's case: In October of 2020, Rochester police executed a search warrant on her apartment concerning suspected drug dealing by her then-boyfriend. The police didn't find any drugs in her apartment, but they did confiscate roughly $8,000 in cash using civil asset forfeiture. Reason reported:
Starling, who runs a food cart and says she was saving up for a food truck, began trying to fight the seizure without a lawyer. She managed to get her seized car back, and she thought that, with no criminal charges pending in the case anymore, she would no doubt soon get her cash back, too.
Instead, she got a nasty surprise. The Rochester Police Department had sent her money to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and although she had filed a notice with the Justice Department that she was challenging the forfeiture, she had missed a deadline to do so in federal court, meaning the government could move to forfeit her money by default.
Starling sent letters to the court begging for an extension.
"I have done everything that was asked of me to make a claim to my currency since the day it was confiscated," Starling wrote. "These actions include filing a petition to the Department of Justice on December 17, 2020…and a claim on January 15, 2021…. These actions were taken in response to correspondence received to do so in a timely manner. In addition to these filings, I contacted and followed the advice of the district attorney presiding over the case that resulted in these monies being confiscated several times. I was told that there would be no release of funds until the case was closed. The defendant in said case was acquitted of all charges on November 17, 2021 and as a result I am following up to get my currency returned to me."
A U.S. District Court judge denied her motion, finding she had not demonstrated excusable neglect, and awarded her money to the government.
The Institute for Justice, which has challenged civil asset forfeiture laws in several states, took up her case on appeal, arguing that Starling was held to an unfair and higher standard than usual for a pro se petitioner—that is, someone representing themselves in court.
The 2nd Circuit agreed, finding that Starling should have been held to a lower "good cause" standard. The court noted that the petty nature and perverse profit incentives of civil asset forfeiture "magnifies the importance of deciding such cases on the merits rather than by default."
"As was made clear in this case, the lax notice requirements allow the government to start the clock toward default judgment with perfunctory measures, such as ordinary mail, and by posting on a government forfeiture website that the citizenry has no reason to know of," the 2nd Circuit wrote. "And because the typical forfeiture case concerns cash and goods with consequence to the deprived party but which rarely justify hiring a lawyer, a huge number of civil forfeiture cases are fought by claimants acting pro se. All this is driven by incentive: The authorities can pocket what they can seize by forfeit."
Such criticisms of civil forfeiture are common among civil liberties groups, but it is rarer to read them in a federal circuit court opinion. It will be welcome reading not just for Starling but the many other property owners trying to navigate the civil forfeiture process without the means to hire a lawyer.
"I'm excited and looking forward to fighting this," Starling said in an Institute for Justice press release. "And I'm happy that I was able to push through and persevere through all these filings, all this paper, and all these court proceedings. Nobody should have to fight this hard just to keep what's theirs."