Charles Clarke was transiting Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport when he was stopped by police who claimed that an official had reportedly smelled the scent of marijuana emanating from his duffel bag. During the search in February 2014, law officers did not find any cannabis, but they did find Clarke’s cash: $11,000. 
 
When Clarke sought to explain that what they found was his life savings intended to pay for college, law enforcement dismissed his claim and accused him of smuggling drug money. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct when he protested the seizure of his money. 
 
The officers at the airport used the controversial method known as civil forfeiture, which allows authorities to permanently seize private property which is then used to fund law enforcement agencies. In many cases, no conviction or proof of criminality is needed to seizure assets, including vehicles, jewelry, tools, and real estate.
 
"Civil forfeiture is a mechanism by which law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property on the mere suspicion that it is connected to a crime." 
 
"In contrast to criminal forfeiture, where property is taken only after a criminal conviction, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take property from innocent people who have never been formally accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one. This evasion of the criminal justice system is based on a legal fiction in which property thought to be connected to an alleged crime is considered “guilty” of having somehow assisted in the commission of that crime. In criminal forfeiture, the government proceeds against a person charged with a crime; in civil forfeiture, the government proceeds against property.
 
"As a measure of federal forfeiture activity, deposits can sometimes be unstable. In a given year, one or two high-dollar cases may produce unusually large amounts of money—with a portion going back to victims—thereby telling a noisy story of year-to-year activity levels. Net assets, the amount of money federal forfeiture funds retain after paying various obligations, represent a more stable metric. From 2001 to 2014, net assets in the DOJ and Treasury forfeiture funds increased 485 percent. 19 Combined assets topped $1 billion for the first time in 2007 and ballooned to nearly $4.5 billion by 2014."
 
“[Civil forfeiture] allows law enforcement to seize and keep property without ever charging someone with a crime,” Institute for Justice attorney Darpana Sheth said. “Even worse, it encourages law enforcement to seize as much money and property as possible by allowing agencies to keep the proceeds for themselves.”
 
A 2015 report published by the Institute for Justice “Policing for Profit,” said that police all over the country have seized more than $4.5 billion in property since 2008 by using civil forfeiture. A co-author of the report, Dick Carpenter, claims that this is another way for departments to obtain regular income when their budgets are strained. 
 
The New York Daily News reported that the majority of arrests involving civil forfeiture are for low-level offenses and misdemeanors. The New York reported that the average such seizure in New York City is approximately $500. Most of the property seize is not on the level of yachts or luxury automobiles, said the New York Daily News. Clarke -- a student at the University of Central Florida -- was lucky to retrieve his money. Most persons subjected to civil-asset forfeitures never see their property again or they have to go through onerous legal proceedings to reclaim it. 
 
The Institute for Justice handled Clarke’s case at no charge. The Huffington Post reported that the Institute for Justice took the Florida student’s case pro bono in 2015.  In November 2015, a judge ruled the federal government had not proved it had cause to seize Clarke’s money because it had no proof he had acquired it through drug dealing. 
 
Both Clarke and the feds have agreed to cease pursuing litigation. The government agreed to return the money with interest on December 6. The disorderly conduct charges were dropped. Clarke is now finishing up his undergraduate degree. 


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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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