Anthony Smelley was the subject of my February feature in Reason about asset forfeiture abuse. In January of last year, Smelley was pulled over in Putnam County, Indiana for an unsafe lane change and an obscured license plate. After a drug dog alerted to Smelley’s car, police seized $17,320 in cash Smelley had brought with him. According to court records, Smelley says he was en route from Michigan to St. Louis, where he planned to use the money to purchase a car for his aunt. Even though Smelley later produced a letter from a Detroit law firm confirming that the money was part of a settlement from a recent car accident, Putnam County moved forward to keep the money, on the absurd theory that Smelley could have used the money to purchase drugs at some point in the future.
To make matters worse, the county was represented not by an elected public official, but by Christopher Gambill, an attorney in private practice who handles several Indiana counties’ forfeiture cases on a contingency basis, earning 25-33 percent of what he wins in court, a system stacked with twisted incentives.
I don’t know that you could call it a victory, but last week, some 13 months after Putnam County took his money, Anthony Smelley learned he will finally get it back. Putnam County Circuit Court Special Judge David Polk ruled that the stop, detainment, and drug dog search of Smelley and his car were all legal. But Polk also determined that because the police found no drugs in Smelley’s possession and because the county presented no other evidence of illegal activity, it is obligated to return Smelley’s money.
Under Indiana law, Smelley will not be reimbursed for his time, interest on the money, court costs or attorney’s fees.
This is obviously preferable to a decision allowing the county to keep Smelley’s money. But it shows just what a rigged game the forfeiture racket is that it took 13 months, two judges, and a hell of a lot of hassle for Smelley to reach the same outcome he should have been granted the moment the police failed to find any contraband in his car.
You can read Polk’s decision here.