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Why Police Could Seize a College Student’s Life Savings Without Charging Him for a Crime

By: Vox.com

Charles Clarke entered the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport last February eager to go back to his mother after a months-long visit with relatives. But instead of a quick, easy trip home to Orlando, Clarke lost his life savings — $11,000 in cash — to law enforcement officials who never even proved he committed a crime.

Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, said losing that $11,000 was “devastating.” He’s been forced to live with his mom, trumping his plans to move closer to school. He’s fallen back on other family for financial support. And he had to take out loans for school instead of paying for it up front — for which he’s still in debt. “It’s been a struggle for me,” Clarke, who’s now fighting in court to get his money back, said.

But law enforcement officials may have been working within the confines of the law when they took Clarke’s money. Under federal and state laws that allow what’s called “civil forfeiture,” law enforcement officers can seize and keep someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime. They just need probable cause to believe the assets are being used as part of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit: either through state programs, or under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments.

So police can not only seize people’s property without proving involvement in a crime, but they have a financial incentive to do so.

People can get their property back through court challenges, but these cases can often be very expensive and take months or years.

It’s these laws that law enforcement officials cited in taking Clarke’s cash, and in seizing thousands of other people’s property across the country. But Clarke’s story shows just how flimsy the initial basis for taking someone’s money can be — starting with, simply, how his checked luggage smelled.

Police say Clarke’s bag smelled like marijuana

The government is mainly basing its forfeiture of Clarke’s $11,000 on one claim: His checked bag and money smelled like marijuana, so, according to law enforcement, the money was very likely obtained or meant for illegal drug activity.

A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Kentucky said it couldn’t directly comment on a case with pending litigation, but he pointed to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent’s affidavit outlining why police felt justified in seizing Clarke’s cash.

The story of what happened at the airport was pieced together with Clarke’s account, the affidavit, and other court documents provided by the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that runs EndForfeiture.com and is helping Clarke get his money back from law enforcement.

Clarke had spent a few months in the winter of 2013 and 2014 visiting relatives in Cincinnati as his mom, whom he lived with, moved to a new apartment in Florida. Before leaving home, Clarke decided to bring all of his cash with him because he didn’t want to deposit it in a bank or leave it in Florida while movers would be in his home.

On February 2014, it was time to go back home to Florida. Clarke went to the Cincinnati airport, checked in a bag, and proceeded to the departure gate. Shortly after, two law enforcement officers — acting through a tip from a ticket agent — claimed they and their drug-sniffing dog detected a strong smell of marijuana coming from the checked bag. The officers proceeded to the departure gate where Clarke was waiting for his plane, and questioned him about his bag, whether he had any cash, and where the cash came from. During this questioning, Clarke admitted to smoking marijuana on the way to the airport, and he provided some — but not all — the information about where the cash came from.

Citing the smell of marijuana, “travel on a recently purchased one-way ticket,” and “inability to provide documentation for source of currency,” the police officers took the cash “based upon probable cause that it was proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in an illegal drug transaction,” according to the affidavit filed in July by the DEA agent, William Conrad.

Up to this point, Conrad’s affidavit noted that Clarke was completely cooperative: He agreed to talk to police when approached, he agreed to a search, and he willingly showed them his cash when asked if he had any money on him. (As Clarke explained to me, he had no idea at the time police could easily take his cash through civil forfeiture laws.)

But after police moved in for his cash, Clarke said he reacted as many people likely would to someone taking their life savings — confused and scared. Conrad’s affidavit alleged that Clarke shouted at the officers, and tried to grab and push one of them away from his cash. Police ended up filing charges against Clarke for assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct — the first charge was immediately dropped, and the second and third were dropped after Clarke agreed to community service.

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