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.