In Virginia: Another Highway Robbery

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Asset forfeiture strikes again. From an editorial in the Washington Post:

VICTOR RAMOS GUZMAN and his brother-in-law noticed a Virginia state trooper pull up beside them as they traveled on Interstate 95 near Emporia, Va., in November. “A police car drove by in parallel, looked at our faces and on no more than that decided to stop us,” Mr. Guzman said in a sworn affidavit.

Virginia State Police say the men were speeding, driving 86 mph in a 70 mph zone and “following too closely.” But the trooper did not issue a ticket that morning despite the allegedly excessive speed nor did he charge the men with any civil or criminal violations. He did, however, seize $28,500 in cash.

In a statement, Virginia State Police say that the “male driver” gave the trooper consent to search the car, but the driver — the brother-in-law — does not speak English. The police also claim the men were acting suspiciously because both “disclaimed ownership of the money” and provided “inconsistent and contradictory statements” about the money.

Misunderstandings cannot be discounted; English is a second language for Mr. Guzman. But there is also a simple explanation: The money wasn’t theirs. Mr. Guzman, an El Salvador native and lawful Northern Virginia resident, says he was transporting money for the church in which he serves as secretary. He told the officer he and his brother-in-law were taking $24,000 of the church’s cash to Atlanta to meet with the owner of a parcel of land in El Salvador, where the church hoped to build. He said $4,000 in his possession was set aside to buy a trailer for church-owned land in North Carolina, and $500 was earmarked to cover the trip’s expenses. A lawyer for the church confirms Mr. Guzman’s account.

After calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the trooper ordered the men to drive to a nearby police station, where he seized the cash and gave them a receipt. The money is being held by an arm of the immigration service, which is determining whether it should be returned. Mr. Guzman and the church have asked that the matter be referred to a federal court.

Americans for Forfeiture Reform has more details:

Trooper Murphy checked their papers, legal status, rental information, et cetera. Having found no violations, the trooper also called the FBI and ICE. The FBI declined involvement. The officer confiscated the cash and issued a receipt for it.

Guzman and Sorto were told by Trooper Murphy that the seizure was being executed “on order of ICE” but that no ICE agents were available because they were in a meeting. Guzman asked that they contact the church to verify their account of the currency trooper Murphy declined to do so and, apparently, told them to shut up. They were also told that they would be contacted by ICE Norfolk.

Having not been contacted by ICE or the Virginia State Patrol, the church contacted attorney Claudia Flower on November 4th. Flower contacted the state police and ICE. ICE, at that point, declined involvement.  Later that day, Flower was able to talk to CL Murphy.

My first thought here was that the state trooper was trying to get the feds involved in order to take advantage of the “adoption” program. Under adoption, police agencies in states with strong forfeiture laws (that is, laws that protect property owners) can get around state law if they ask a federal police agency to join in the investigation. The federal agency then is technically the agency that seizes the funds, making the investigation subject to more lenient federal forfeiture laws than those of more restrictive state. The feds then give as much as 80 percent of the seized property back to the local police agency.

But it turns out that Virginia has pretty awful civil forfeiture laws—probably worse than federal law, which was improved in 2000. So I don’t know what Cl. Murphy was doing. Perhaps he knew he couldn’t pin anything on these two at the scene, so he would tie them up in an immigration nightmare. But have a look at the factors that Murphy says justify the seizure:

Flower inquired of the probable cause for the seizure and was told . . .

1) The members stated that the cash was not theirs but belonged to the church.

2) The church was located in Baltimore MD, while the address of the individuals was in Virginia.

3) Guzman and Sorto appeared confused.

4) Guzman and Sorto did not know where they were going.

On those factors alone, the state of Virginia can  apparently take your cash on suspicion of criminal activity. It’s then up to you to find an attorney who knows how to get it back. They didn’t even go through the charade of prodding a drug dog to alert.

And it gets worse.

[Fowler told Murphy] Guzman and Sorto were driving south bound towards Fayettville, and then to Atlanta, GA as they had told the officer. They knew where they were going and why.

Murphy then stated to Flower, ”People lie to me all the time why do I need to listen to you? The money was seized on behalf of ICE, J.T. Slayton of ICE Norfolk, maybe the chain of command does not know because he has not had time to file a report.”

Murphy then yelled at Flower and hung up.

So many questions. Why would a Virginia state trooper seize $28,000 on behalf of ICE when no ICE agents were ever called to the scene to investigate? Can ICE really just order a property seizure after a traffic stop over the phone, based on nothing more than a state troopers assertion of the four factors above? Does ICE regularly interact with state police agencies in this way?

According to the Post, the “money is being held by an arm of the immigration service, which is determining whether it should be returned.” Think about that for a moment. The government pulled these guys over for driving 12 mph over the speed limit, took $28,000 in cash from them because they appeared confused and lived in a different (bordering) state than their church, and has now held that money for two months while it investigates whether the money was linked to a criminal enterprise (or, if you’re cynical, looks for a way to link it to a criminal enterprise)—and whether or not it will do Guzman, Sorto, and their church the favor of returning it.

As the Post points out, many immigrants don’t carry credit cards or checkbooks. These two were fortunate enough to have been hooked up with some excellent attorneys, who are handling the case pro bono. You wonder how many aren’t, and how many have had cash seized in small enough amounts that the cost of hiring an attorney to win it back wouldn’t be worth the effort.

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48 Responses to “In Virginia: Another Highway Robbery”

  1. #1 |  tarran | 

    I had a great interaction with a Virginia State Trooper. I was visiting my in-laws and had been nominated to drive my father-in-law’s pickup truck back to his house on the final leg of a journey after we gassed up. I pulled out of the gas station with the headlights off, having been spoiled by the autoamtic headlights on my own car, and drove about a hundred yards before I realized that I didn’t have the lights on. Just as I turned on my lights, a statie lit me up.

    It turned into a 20 minute stop while the guy looked for any excuse to get me for something. At the end of the stop he acted like he was doing me a favor by letting me go. I thank god that I had just gotten a pretty short haircut (I tend to let my hair get really shaggy before I part with my hard earned pay to a barber) and was a bona-fide veteran. Me looking like a “good” ex-soldier seemed to mitigate my crime with the statie.

  2. #2 |  CTD | 

    “3) Guzman and Sorto appeared confused.”

    Yeah, they thought they’d moved from a third world banana republic to a civilized, free country.

  3. #3 |  Mike | 

    Just a friendly aside: if you find yourself driving in Emporia, VA, slow the hell down! Seriously, you wanna do the speed limit there. It’s an infamous speed trap.

  4. #4 |  Joe Schneider | 

    In China the state seizes assets to squelch dissent under the charge of ‘economic crimes’. They hold the victim and their property while they sift through their property to make up a ‘real’ crime.

  5. #5 |  CyniCAl | 

    Well, we’re much more civilized in the USSA. Here the authorities simply file civil suit against the property, as in “The People of the US vs. $28,500.” Things are vastly better here than in China, so we have that going for us, which is nice.

  6. #6 |  Mario | 

    tarran @ #1

    I hate to think what could have happened if the cop decided you were bad ex-soldier.

  7. #7 |  Heartless Libertarian | 

    Radley, you used to live in Alexandria. You must have always driven slow, or you’d know that Emporia is an extremely well known speed trap, too.

    You can’t even see the city from I-95, but their city limits cover the interstate. I got a speeding ticket on the interstate, from an Emporia city cop, about 3 years ago. My out of state (WA) plates virtually ensured that I wouldn’t show up in traffic court, but maybe my DoD windshield sticker saved me from bigger harassment.

  8. #8 |  db | 

    In Virginia, no matter what the speed limit, driving 80 mph automatically qualifies as reckless driving which is a class A misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of 1 year in prison–which is outragous (the Virginia traffic lawyer lobby is strong).

    No citation at the scene strikes me as strange if they were looking to pin something on these guys.

  9. #9 |  Kristen | 

    Virginia is for Lovers (of Uniformed, Government-Employed Gangs & Thugs)!

  10. #10 |  Marty | 

    the cops have already planned an asset forfeiture ‘hookers, beers, and boats’ trip, I bet.

  11. #11 |  Steve Verdon | 

    With cops like these who needs the Mafia and extortionists.

    Really, I know some commenters like to talk about how cops do do some good, I’d argue that is an accidental by product. I know some think that we can fix this, but when you give people power they are corrupted by it. I know some don’t think we can have a society with out a government that has a legal monopoly to use violence against its own citizens. Try reading about the Ukraine Free Territory…it was not Somalia. That is your anarchist example.

    Anyone who says anarchy leads to Somalia is a moron.

  12. #12 |  Dante | 

    “how many have had cash seized in small enough amounts that the cost of hiring an attorney to win it back wouldn’t be worth the effort.”

    Enough to pay for all the tanks, land mines and rocket launchers needed to save the children.

    They aren’t even pretending any more – they are stealing our stuff because they can. Any effort to reclaim your rightful belongings will be quashed by the very same beauracracy that took your belongings. Oh, and it will cost a freakin’ fortune in order to dissuade all but the most serious.

    Say what you will, but at least the government is being efficient.

    Protect & Serve (Themselves!)

  13. #13 |  FridayNext | 

    Just another example of the governments war on Christians.

  14. #14 |  FloO | 

    Low-hanging Fruit Syndrome AKA easy pickins.

    I once told a Virginia attorney that I couldn’t attend law school because I didn’t have a passion for the law.

    She said “Yes, you would definitely need a passion to get through law school.

    In the past two years I feel more and more passionate about legal injustices, and I sometimes think you need a law degree and a camera just to drive on I-95 as protection from the Stasi.

  15. #15 |  M. Steve | 

    You know, I love living in the Northeast, but it’s getting near time to get out (or move up to NH). As the Blue States continue to beggar their own kingdoms with outrageous expenditures, everyone’s money will become less and less safe from government “appropriation”. In 5-10 years, we’ll look back at the days of Asset Forfeiture with nostalgia and melancholy.

  16. #16 |  derfel cadarn | 

    This entire situation can be summed up in these immortal words, America what a country.

  17. #17 |  a_random_guy | 

    Move up to NH? Sorry, it’s too late. Too many MA-refuguees have already moved across the border, and have started remaiking NH politics into a copy of MA liberalism. Besides which – if you’re living in MA now, you’d just be another of them…

    These are people clever enough to see that their “progressive” state is not working, so they move to a place that still has more freedoms. Sadly, the very same people are then stupid enough to demand the same brain-dead policies that ruined the last place they lived.

    The same thing started in Colorado 20 years earlier. Texas has long since been conquered – the damn Yankees in places like Dallas and Austin long since outnumber the real Texans.

  18. #18 |  Comrade Dread | 

    Time was when the police would be more interested in arresting a man with a gun who took 30 grand from innocent citizens than trying to ignore it.

  19. #19 |  varmintito | 

    @15 & 17: Why the two minutes hate against northeastern liberals?

    Last I checked, Emporia, VA was near the NC border, about 100 miles south of Richmond (the former capital of a defunct nation that went to war with the forces of northeastern liberalism in 1861). Please refresh my memory, on which side of that conflict did the gentlefolk of NH and MA fight?

    I know nothing about this state trooper’s political orientation, but if I were a gambling man, I would feel a whole lot happier betting on right than left.

    And are we to believe that any abusive asset forfeiture in the state of Texas is the fault of all the damnyankee politicians, cops and prosecutors who control law enforcement in that state? The things I learn when I turn off my brain and rely on the highly informed and well-intended remarks of internet commenters.

    Seriously, WTF?

  20. #20 |  agent_denali | 

    And I bet someone is collecting interest on that 28 grand also. Best article I have read in a long time.

    never heard that before, and I’m totally stealing it XD

  21. #21 |  M. Steve | 

    @17 Check my posting history if you honestly think I’d be “one of them”. Thanks for the laugh.

    @19 Lateral thinking not your strong suit, eh?

  22. #22 |  picachu | 

    1 Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
    2 to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
    making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
    3 What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?

    Isa. 10:1-3

  23. #23 |  Marty | 

    #11 thanks for pointing out the Ukraine Free Territory- I hadn’t heard of it.

  24. #24 |  Michael B. | 

    Serves them right for allowing police to search your car. Just kidding of course but it shows you – never consent to a search.

  25. #25 |  John222 | 

    While I’m not a big fan of reality shows, I would watch one where “suspicious” looking characters with large amounts of cash drove up and down highways in vehicles wired to the hilt with hidden streaming video cameras. After the money is seized, follow up episodes could include the hoops that must be jumped through to get the money back.

  26. #26 |  bpman | 

    @#23 YES! I’ve never been a fan of reality t.v., but when I read your comment I realized that’s a reality t.v. show I’d HAVE to watch!! Reminds of an investigative news segment in Nashville awhile back that actually had a chopper follow drug interdiction units (and actually caught the cops in the act of doing exactly what the trooper in this article did!) LE rode parallel, saw some brown folks in the vehicle, then pulled over the vehicle to search for money!! Of course, it was awesome whent the reporter called LE out later on. LE claimed they’d pulled over the tahoe because it was swerving from lane to lane. The reporter says something like “Umm no sir, we actually have video of the time when your officer pulled out onto the interstate until he pulled over the tahoe, & the only one seen here swerving, was the Law Enforcement officer.”
    anyways, lets see this reality show!

  27. #27 |  Johnny Clamboat | 

    #23: Sadly, that looks like it would be the most effective way to stop this shit.

    Plastering the reality of swinish larceny and stonewalling all over TV > The goddamn piece of paper fka the Constitution.

  28. #28 |  Mike | 

    Has there been a Supreme Court ruling validating asset forfeiture?

  29. #29 |  Some VA Lawyuh | 

    Purely anecdotal but: I practiced criminal law in Va. (including Emporia, Greensville Sussex) for Twenty years (until last year) and I never ran across a state asset forfeiture case. They were very common in federal court, and I was contacted several times to help in federal cases, but never had a state one. I have heard of the odd car seizure in prostitution cases in Norfolk, and once in Richmond. My impression is that the Commonwealth’s Attorneys don’t like them for whatever reason (I never prosecuted here). I have heard that the laws are used in NOVA jurisdictions, but, thankfully, never had a to spend a lot of time up there.

    All of that being said, I am a firm opponent of these laws for any number of reasons, and my few encounters with them in federal court were extremely frustrating. There were judges who would always approve, and those who took a very dim view of the seizures, but none who seemed downright philosophically opposed to them

  30. #30 |  Bergman | 

    Re: Comrade Dread, #18:

    The only law enforcement exemption to statutes covering armed robbery is the one that involves a search & seizure warrant. By definition, a uniformed officer making traffic stops will be armed, and courts have held in the past that simple possession of a firearm during a robbery, even if the victim never sees the gun, changes unarmed robbery to armed robbery.

    There have been hundreds if not thousands of incidents over the years where compliance with one law leads directly to violating another. A good example is being ordered to disperse by a cop, when the only way to comply is to jaywalk. Or, when open carrying a handgun, in a place that requires a permit to conceal, being ordered by an officer to cover it up (disobeying an order is usually a crime).

    So there’s laws on the books that allow police to seize money if it is being used for or results from a criminal act? There’s laws against seizing money while armed (or unarmed) too. Depending on the state, citizen’s arrest of a uniformed officer may be legal, and resisting a citizen’s arrest usually falls under the same statutes as resisting a police officer’s arrest.

    So, what I’m wondering is, why don’t we see more citizen’s arrests of officers for armed robbery?

  31. #31 |  Contrarian | 

    I thought one commenter on the Post article nailed it:
    “The editorial staff of the Washington Post apparently endorses the “indefinite detention” of Americans, but not the cash that they are carrying.”

    Pretty much sums it up.

  32. #32 |  varmintito | 

    Mike @28:

    Yes, the S. Ct. has affirmed the constitutionality of asset forfetiure laws.

    In Bennis v. Michigan, 516 U.S. 442 (1996), the Supreme Court held that Michigan’s asset forfeiture statute was constitutional even though it lacked an innocent spouse provision.

    Briefly, husband and wife jointly owned an old car worth about $1,000 as their sole means of transportation. Husband gets busted with a prostitute in the car. State confiscates the car under the asset forfeiture law. Wife, who was on the title to the vehicle and did not know, let alone approve her husband using to pick up a hooker, challenged the forfeiture. The Supreme Court said this is all fine because the forfeiture is a civil action directed at the instrumentality or profits of certain crimes, not at the owner of the property. Thus, no Due Process violation.

    In Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544 (1993), the feds prosecuted the owner of a chain of adult video and bookstores under the RICO statute. the jury found that 4 magazines and 3 videos, out of the thousands of titles sold, met the legal definition of obscenie materials and thus qualified as RICO predicates. Based on these convictions, the feds confiscated every personal and business asset the defendant owned. They sold his personal property and business fixtures at yard sale prices, sold his real property by quitclaim deed, and burned all of his stock of magazines videos, sex toys, etc. All told, the feds destroyed almost $10 million of inventory that had never been demonstrated to violate the obscenity laws, and disposed of personal and business assets worth more than $10 million that were never proven to be the proceeds from the sale of materials that violated the obscenity laws.

    The Supreme Court held that there was no need to limit forfeiture to property that could reasonably be traced ot the commission or proceeds of a crime.

    Yeah, the Supreme Court’s asset forfeiture jurisprudence sucks farts out of bus seats.

  33. #33 |  perlhaqr | 

    Steve, #11: With cops like these who needs the Mafia and extortionists.

    Hey, now, that’s not fair. To the Mob, I mean. When you pay off the Mafia, they actually leave you alone.

  34. #34 |  perlhaqr | 

    Bergman, #29: So, what I’m wondering is, why don’t we see more citizen’s arrests of officers for armed robbery?

    People mostly don’t enjoy getting shot, and who are you going to call to finish the detainment, anyway? Typically, your only option is another officer from the same LE organization, and who are they going to believe, you or their “brother officer”?

    They are the system. You cannot use the same system against them. (And lest you think I’m gleeful about this at all, I assure you, I write these words in utter despair.)

  35. #35 |  Kolohe | 

    Sic Semper, Baby.

  36. #36 |  Johnny | 

    I know it’s a bit off topic but speaking of prodding drug dogs to alert, the Supreme Court is now looking at a case that would allow this as evidence justifying police raids of private residences:

  37. #37 |  FloO | 

    #31 I think that’s the case I remember where the FEDS actually burned the VCR s, as though they were tainted because they may have played an “obscene” tape.

  38. #38 |  picachu | 

    This is ridiculous. And we’re all talking like there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of anything ever changing. In no other country except maybe North Korea is this police state shit still normal. I doubt people in China or Cuba have to fear leaving their house because they might run into an agent of the government who can destroy their life.

    Life’s too short for this shit and the world’s too big. I’ve made up my mind to emigrate. I don’t even know where but as soon as I can save some money I’m going to go find someplace that hopefully is a freer country to live in.

  39. #39 |  supercat | 

    I’ve sometimes wished that someone could publish a list of government crooks, along with information sufficient to demonstrate that the people on the list actually deserved to be there, and that a significant number of people who would otherwise be prone to interact with those on the list would decide to snub them instead. Many people take for granted all the common interactions and niceties of day-to-day life. Being widely snubbed can be harsh, and a lot of government crooks deserve it.

  40. #40 |  John C. Randolph | 

    This isn’t a “confiscation”, it’s a straight-up robbery. Confiscation is when money or property is seized legally.


  41. #41 |  John C. Randolph | 

    Yes, the S. Ct. has affirmed the constitutionality of asset forfetiure laws.

    I’d state that somewhat differently. The court has repeatedly failed to enforce the plain language of the constitution when it comes to these highway robbery statutes, just as they failed in the Wickard and Kelo cases. What this demonstrates is that depending on a royalist institution to secure our rights is nothing but wishful thinking.


  42. #42 |  supercat | 

    #41 | John C. Randolph | “The court has repeatedly failed to enforce the plain language of the constitution when it comes to these highway robbery statutes…”

    Indeed. I wish people would realize that while it is the Court’s job to recognize unconstitutional legislation as such, the court has no authority to claim as legitimate legislation which is in fact unconstitutional. Any such ruling the court might make is itself illegitimate, and it is the duty of the citizenry to regard it as such.

  43. #43 |  Boomer | 

    I got a $100.00 ticket last year for havine a Radae Detector on while driving through Va……Yikes….

  44. #44 |  Larken Rose | 

    I realize that writing the following will qualify me as an extremist terrorist, but… “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” How, exactly, does that jive with, “We’re stealing this and keeping it based on a whim, unless and until you can convince us that we should give it back”? These days, people have been duped into thinking that it’s the job of “government”-appointed control freaks with black dresses and wooden hammers (“judges”) to decide what’s constitutional. And when they blatantly lie, you’re just supposed to take their word for it. Yeah, like that’s worked well so far. Gack. When will people stop calling this the land of the free? Because it’s not.

  45. #45 |  Joe in Missouri | 

    The founders did not put up with this level of tyranny before they declared war.

    I wonder how long it will be until highway robbers like this start having their necks stretched by good law abiding citizens?

  46. #46 |  Jim | 

    Never. Because it’s not only no longer the ‘land of the free’ it’s also no longer the ‘home of the brave’.

  47. #47 |  Deoxy | 

    I wonder how long it will be until highway robbers like this start having their necks stretched by good law abiding citizens?

    As I’ve stated before on this blog, that is where this ends. Either the cops clean their own house, or it ends in violence against the police.

    As I really, REALLY don’t want the latter (not just for the violence itself, but also for the long-term social damage that does), I hope greatly that members of law enforcement will clean up their act, even if only for self-preservation.

  48. #48 |  Don Cordell | 

    The state of California brags, they bring in about $3 Billion a year in Asset Fforfeitures. In one case the man had just received $135 from the court house as a return on a ticket he was found not guilty, and the cops claimed it tested positive for drugs, money gone. It would cost him more to fight it than the #135. The cops brag, they are just cleaning up crime. The owner of Scott Paper Co, was invaded one morning about 8 AM, when he came out of the bedroom door with a gun, he was instantly killed. Why? They thought he might have pot growing in his avacadon orchards, No pot plants found. They had already investigated how much the property was probably worth if they confiscated it. Mr. Scott was recently married to a new wife. The raiding Sheriff was her previous boy friend. Justice? NOT in America anymore. There are thousands of these cases going on all over the nation. Out of state cars confiscated on the highways of Louisiana, the crime is our Legal System that gave the cops open season on us. If you want this to stop click on my name and look at item #65 in my menu of problems in America. I am furious about this, and if I’m elected, I’m going to take the cops to task, and protect American citizens to return Justice to our nation. Cops have been out of control for as long as I know, and it’s time for us to stand up and prove we are not Cowards. I hate cops with a passion, and I’ve never been convicted of any crime. I’ve never been guilty of anything other than traffic offenses. (of which I was guilty) other than that, submission is proof they are winning. Do you want to stop this? Do you want a president who will confront any abuse of the Bill of Rights? Do you want manufacturing to return to America, to put America back to work? Well you’ve got a chance next November. Let’s ReVote to ReStore our nation, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.