Another civil forfeiture case with a drug twist

We’ve covered a number of cases of police forfeiture of assets under more than questionable circumstances here in the past. (See here, here and here.) Now there’s another one, and while there may be something of a twist here, it doesn’t seem to be much of one. Reason Magazine has a story of a young man who was found boarding a plane on a domestic flight with a large sum of cash in his bags. (It’s $11K so you can apply your own judgement to the word “large” in this context.)

Before he went any further, officials had taken the money.

When he visited relatives in Cincinnati the winter before last, Charles Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, took with him $11,000 that he had saved from wages, financial aid, and family gifts because he did not want to lose it. He did not count on the armed robbers at the airport, who took every last cent as he was about to board a flight back to Orlando in February 2014. Adding insult to injury, the thieves were cops, who justified confiscating Clarke’s life savings by claiming his luggage and cash smelled like pot.

More than a year later, Clarke is still trying to get his money back, and now he has help from the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm that has been fighting this sort of forfeiture abuse for years. While Clarke admits that he was a recreational pot smoker, he says he was never involved in the marijuana trade. “I’m not a drug dealer,” he told Vox’s German Lopez. “I never have been.”

(More background from the Institute for Justice.)

Reading this story I’ll be the first to admit that there are questions I might have been asking myself if I were on duty at the scene. Assuming the authorities are being truthful, smelling marijuana is certainly reason for a search. Then there’s the question of the cash. Who, in 2015, carries $11K in their bags on the plane unless they are going to a high stakes poker tournament? If Clarke was relocating, wouldn’t he have had his bank transfer the funds or at least get traveler’s checks?

But as I said, those are only reasons for initial suspicions which could lead officers to take a look. Beyond that, it’s not against the law to carry a bunch of money on a domestic plane flight, even if it’s incredibly foolish given the way they “lose” luggage. (If you fly into the country on an international flight with a large sum of undeclared cash, however, you’re probably going to lose it.) If there is nothing else found, taking the money and keeping it, absent related charges, certainly looks like yet another case of the government scooping up money and essentially daring the citizen to come get it back.

The only thing missing from this coverage – and I did a search for other sources which might have dealt with a related court case and didn’t find anything else yet – is the disposition of any possible drug charges. Clarke is clearly saying he’s not involved in the marijuana trade and is not a dealer. But since he admits to being a recreational smoker, did he have any on him? Was there a related drug charge which was or is being processed? That might give the cops a bit more standing to grab the money initially, but is there any indication that the cash was for an illegal purpose?

The more of these stories I hear, the more I think we need to go much further than the changes that the Justice Department suggested and put the brakes on these seizures.

UPDATE: (Jazz 6/18/15) After this article was originally published, I received a note from Shira Rawlinson at the Institute for Justice. She wanted to provide clarification on a couple of the questions I asked, specifically as to whether or not Clarke was found to be carrying any contraband on him at the time of the seizure. This is her response.

I wanted to clear up a couple of things in your article, like the question asking if Charles had anything on him. After he was told his bag smelled like pot, Charles consented to a search of himself, his checked bag and his carry on. The police found absolutely nothing illegal and found absolutely no drugs on him or in his bags. Charles preferred to use cash and his bank had few physical locations. His mom was moving, so he didn’t want to lose the money in the move. It’s why he took it with him when he went to visit family in Cincy.