The Charleston Gazette-Mail had an article this weekend on a New Jersey couple who were pulled over by a West Virginia State Trooper on their way to a casino. They had $10,000.00 with them. The state trooper took all but $2.00 and sent them on their way. He also took their cell phone (presumably to search it for evidence of a crime, such as drug dealing).
This highlights what is perhaps the ugliest, most unconstitutional, most nazi-ish, thuggish, and un-American behavior engaged-in by the government at the present time: asset forfeiture. This is the way it works. You get pulled over for a traffic offense. You have cash on you, or in the vehicle. The officer seizes the cash, because they consider the cash itself to constitute evidence of being a drug dealer. They don’t have to charge you criminally whatsoever. They then serve you with a notice that, if you want to redeem your cash, you have to contact the court and the prosecuting attorney, and formally claim the cash. In so doing, the process implies that have to explain to the court, and the prosecutor, where you obtained the money, etc. The theory is, that drug dealers are not going to claim the money. The the law enforcement agency gets to keep it, and the prosecutor’s office gets 10%. Talk about a conflict of interest . . . .
In reality, the law provides that in order to keep the currency which was seized from the citizens, the State, pursuant to W. Va. Code § 60A-7-703(a)(6) (1988), is required to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial connection between the property seized and an illegal drug transaction. This finding is in addition to the initial finding of probable cause that an illegal act under the drug law has occurred. See Syllabus Point 4 of State v. Forty-Three Thousand Dollars, No. 31224 (W. Va. 11/26/2003) (W. Va. 2003).
Only after the State has filed a civil forfeiture petition, and met its’ burden of proof by a preponderance is the citizen required to prove how he/she/they came into ownership of the currency. Id. at 6.
In the case of the couple in the Gazette article, Dimities Patlias and Tonya Smith, they got nowhere until they contacted the media. The reporter, Jake Zuckerman, started making some phone calls, including to the prosecuting attorney, and voila, their money was returned in full. Now the couple is rightly pissed off, and much of the public is learning about this un-American scheme for the first time.
The Prosecuting Attorney of Jefferson County, who returned the money is a good guy. Kudos to him for doing the right thing after looking into it. I actually had an asset forfeiture case with him previously, and he returned the money in that case as well. I also represented some of his family members in a real estate related jury trial, which we won, thankfully. This is a problem in a national scale. This occurs everywhere, and is practiced by the federal government as well.