Airport Pirates Find Bounty in a College Student’s Life Savings

Today, our friends at the Institute for Justice launched a new challenge to yet another instance of egregious civil asset forfeiture abuse.

Charles Clarke is a 24-year-old college student who found out the hard way that government officials can confiscate property on the mere suspicion that it has a “substantial connection” to a crime or is the proceeds of a crime. No underlying conviction is required. Functionally, this means that officers can claim that “something was a little off” about your behavior, or that “something smells a little like drugs” and then have carte blanche to take whatever cash you have on you. After that, your cash is presumptively guilty, and it is up to you to prove its innocence.

In the winter of 2013, Charles was stopped at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport based on the officers’ assertion that his bag smelled like marijuana. Actually, it was based off of a drug dog’s “signal” that his bag smelled like marijuana. By claiming that a dog “alerted” an officer can obtain probable cause, but in reality the dogs are about as reliable as Clever Hans.

After searching his bag, the officers found no drugs or other illegal substances. They then asked him if he was carrying any cash. Charles volunteered that he was carrying $11,000–clearly thinking, not unreasonably, that in a just world there is no way the officers could just take his money. Charles’s mistake, however, was thinking that he lives in a just world, and the officers walked away with his life savings.

Charles had saved the $11,000 over the previous five years, from work, financial aid, educational benefits, and gifts from family. Now he must overcome the officers’ hunches by proving that his money came from legal sources.

By now, hopefully you’re familiar with civil asset forfeiture. Thanks in part to the excellent work of the Institute for Justice, as well as biting commentary from John Oliver and dogged investigative journalism from the Washington Post and the New Yorker (as well as Cato’s own work), civil asset forfeiture no longer exists in the shadows, where the perpetrators would have prefered it to remain. In a time of sharp political divides, there’s one thing we all should agree on: police and other law enforcement officials should not be allowed to take assets based only on the suspicion of criminal activity and then be permitted to use those assets to purchase needed things for the department, like margarita machines.

Charles–who admittedly smoked marijuana on the way to the airport–lost his life savings to what amounts to legalized piracy. It seems Mancur Olson was on to something when he described the government as “stationary bandits.”

Thankfully, Charles has the saintly lawyers at the Institute for Justice on his side, who use the money from IJ’s generous donors to defend people like him from the most powerful organization in human history–the United States government. Otherwise, Charles would be out of luck. His confiscated $11,000 is just small enough to make it almost not worth it to pay thousands in attorney’s fees in order to possibly get some of it back. It’s almost as if the officers who confiscated his money thought that Charles would be unlikely to have the resources to fight the seizure.

Last year, the officers at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport had a “good” year taking things from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime, raking in $530,000 from travelers similar to Charles. Under the federal “equitable sharing” program, the departments of the deputized airport police are allowed to keep up to 80 percent of that money.

The Institute for Justice is not only seeking to recover Charles’s money, they are challenging the constitutional deficencies of the civil asset forfeiture program in general. 

For more on Charles’s case, see Vox’s story.

For more on civil asset forfeiture, see our episode of “Free Thoughts” featuring Scott Bullock from the Institute for Justice.