Another Asset Forfeiture Outrage

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that police may keep the $124,700 they seized from Emiliano Gonzolez, an immigrant who by all appearances was attempting to use the money to start a legitimate business.

This is an outrageous ruling. Consider:

  • Gonzolez was never charged with any crime in relation to the money, much less convicted.
  • Gonzolez has an explanation for the money that a lower court found both “plausible” and “consistent.” He brought several witnesses forward to corroborate his story (in the preposterous land of asset forfeiture, property can be guilty of a crime, and the burden is often on the person the police seized the property from to prove he obtained it legally).
  • The government offered no evidence to counter Gonzolez’s explanation.
  • Instead, the court ruled that the mere fact that Gonzolez was carrying a large sum of money, that he had difficulty understanding the officer’s questions, that he incorrectly answered some of those questions (due, Gonzolez says, to fears that if police knew he was carrying that much money, they might confiscate it — imagine that!), and that a drug dog alerted to the car Gonzolez was driving (which, as dissenting judge Donald Lay noted, was a rental, likely driven by dozens of people before Gonzolez), was enough to “convict” the money of having drug ties, even if there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Gonzolez.The court ruled that despite the fact that Gonzolez’s witnesses were credible enough to, in person, convince a lower court he was telling the truth, on appeal, it, the appellate court, reading those witnesses’ testimony on paper, simply didn’t believe them.

    So the police get to keep the lifelong savings Gonzolez, his friends, and relatives had pooled to start a business. No charge and no conviction were necessary.

    The opinion itself — like most asset forfeiture cases — reads like something from a third-rate military junta. Actual excerpts:

  • “Possession of a large sum of cash is ‘strong evidence’ of a connection to drug activity.”
  • “…while an innocent traveler might theoretically carry more than $100,000 in cash across country and seek to conceal funds from would-be thieves on the highway, we have adopted the common-sense view that bundling and concealment of large amounts of currency, combined with other suspicious circumstances, supports a connection between money and drug trafficking.”
  • “Gonzolez had flown on a one-way ticket, which we have previously acknowledged is evidence in favor of forfeiture.”
  • While the claimants’ explanation for these circumstances may be “plausible,” we think it is unlikely. We therefore conclude that the government proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant currency was substantially connected to a narcotics offense.”
  • My emphasis added on the last point. The absurdity of these cases never fails to amaze when you actually see them in print. The money, not Gonzolez, was found guilty of drug crimes.

    The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 was supposed to rein in seizure outrages like this one. Critics of the bill at the time noted that it didn’t go nearly far enough.

    Looks like they may have been right.

    Check here for Cato’s research on asset forfeiture.