Last month we looked at the disturbing trend of the IRS seizing the bank assets of businesses with no charges being filed against them and just keeping the money. I remember thinking, when first reading that story, that it sounded like highway robbery. This week we run across a different tale which may turn out to be a far more literal case of highway robbery. It involves two men described as professional gamblers who were pulled over by Iowa state troopers on their way to Vegas. The encounter did not go well for them.
By the time the encounter was over, the gamblers had been detained for more than two hours. Their car was searched without a warrant. And their cellphones, a computer and $100,020 of their gambling “bankroll” were seized under state civil asset-forfeiture laws. The troopers allowed them to leave, without their money, after issuing a traffic warning and a citation for possession of marijuana paraphernalia that carried a $65 fine, court records show.
Months later, an attorney for the men obtained a video of the stop. It showed that the motorists were detained for a violation they did not commit — a failure to signal during a lane change — and authorities were compelled to return 90 percent of the money.
Now, before getting on to the main point of the story, I’m going to pause and highlight something something in the interest of being fair. If I were the police and I pulled somebody over who turned out to have more than $100K in cash in the car, stored in plastic “vacuum sealed packages” as described later in the article, I’d probably have some questions too. I’ve been to both Vegas and Atlantic City a few times and they handle electronic transfers of cash in massive amounts all the time. I don’t know of any legal gambling activity in casinos where they would insist you have that kind of money in cash. Further, the police found an “herb grinder” in the car with traces of marijuana in it, so I’m not sure that it was ever established that these guys were actually gamblers. But that’s not really the point here.
If no charges were filed more serious than a jay-walking ticket, how did the cops seize all that money in the first place? And after being compelled to return it, how did they still manage to keep ten grand? Even worse, these guys apparently aren’t the only ones. (Emphasis added.)
The case has created a stir in Iowa’s political and law enforcement worlds. The Des Moines Register wrote about the lawsuit and called for legislative reforms in an Oct. 19 editorial that cited the I-80 seizure and a recent investigation by The Post, which found that police nationwide have seized $2.5 billion in cash from almost 62,000 people without warrants or indictments under federal civil asset-forfeiture laws since 2001. The laws allow police departments to keep up to 80 percent of the cash they seize.
“As long as police agencies know that all or some of the cash they seize will be funneled back into them, the roadside shakedowns are going to continue,” the Register’s Oct. 19 editorial said.
The practice in question is referred to as “highway interdiction” and it should raise serious questions. If there are funds being seized, particularly in cases where no serious charges related to the money wind up being filed, and the money is not returned, we have a problem. And if the policy is designed to allow the cops to keep a portion of the “proceeds” then you have built in an incentive for abuse. Between the IRS and the state troopers, I’m really starting to question what’s going on here. How are regular citizens being robbed by the authorities and not being able to recoup the confiscated funds?