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Seizing the American Dream: A Sad Tale of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Imagine for a moment if you will, that you are an aspiring college student, and life is a struggle; a balancing act of working multiple jobs in order to help your family, while trying to set aside money for your own education; knowing that if you do not push yourself past normal limits, college will be a part of life you will never know. The knowledge that you will have to carve out your own path to success only drives you to strive harder for that broken American dream.

You have worked for years to finally scrape together enough to pay for your first year’s tuition and whatever you might need in order to make your way, as you finally see your dream coming to fruition. With your family in the process of moving apartments, the typically secure family home was a temporarily unsafe location to leave the money as you embark on the first step of a journey of betterment into the life of a college student. As you arrive at the airport, all that you have, all that you were able to pull together over years of work and multiple grueling jobs with long hours, is carefully tucked into your pocket with designs to put that hard-earned money toward your future: school tuition, housing and sustenance.

As you step toward the plane filled with excitement, you are abruptly approached by a conglomerate of DEA and airport police asking if you have any drugs or money on your person. Certain that you are breaking no laws, you inform the officers that you have $11,000 in your pocket. Yet, before you can explain its purpose and plead for your life savings, it is confiscated along with your iPad and cellphone. Most shocking of all, you are not even charged with a crime.

This was the story of a young man named Charles Clarke, who found himself at the mercy of unconstitutional, profit-seeking government officials, who chose to capitalize on an unjust law, and take every cent he had saved. The sad fact is that Clarke intended to use that money for the purpose of actually contributing to a society that is greatly lacking just that sort of drive and passion. The flight attendant who checked Clarke’s bag had reported that it smelled like marijuana, which gave these officers probable cause to search him; Clarke is a marijuana smoker, but he had not, and was not breaking any laws. Once nothing was found, no illegal contraband of any kind, there was then no legal precedent within the Constitution to relieve Clarke of his money, and especially not his personal belongings.

“I’m not a drug dealer. I’ve never been,” Clarke said. “I didn’t have any plans on doing anything illegal. I was just trying to get home.”

After Clarke’s money and belongings were taken, and he started to realize what was happening, he became justifiably upset.

“A short struggle ensued and Clarke was eventually arrested and charged with assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct,” William Conrad, DEA task force, said in court documents.

The “short struggle” consisted of Clarke reaching out and grabbing the officer’s wrist, in a moment of sheer panic, as he saw his dreams falling away with every step the officer took with his life savings in hand; an understandable reaction when being confronted with an unjust situation being dealt by the very men charged with upholding justice. Clarke only wished to further plead his case in hopes of retaining his college money. The charges on Clarke were quickly dropped, and he was never charged with a crime related to the alleged drug trafficking.

“I was nervous,” Clarke said of his encounter with the officers. “I didn’t want them to take my life savings. I worked hard to save this money.”

According to court documents, Conrad said the money was seized “based on probable cause that it was proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in an illegal transaction.”

This is a practice called civil asset forfeiture that, while wholly unconstitutional, is actually considered legal under certain wildly ambiguous circumstances. Most common of those circumstances is the suspicion of drug dealing or possession. And yes, that only said suspicion, because with the current laws in place, all an officer needs in order to seize your home, car, television, personal jewelry and just about anything else that catches their eye, is the assumption of a crime. Innocent until proven guilty has seemingly gone the same route as the 2nd amendment, the 1st amendment, and, well, the Constitution; which is to say, that for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist.

ForfeitureMany might have the immediate reaction of, “Well I’m not breaking any laws so I have nothing to hide.” Tell that to Victor Ramos Guzman who was driving with his brother-in-law on I-95 south of Richmond carrying $28,500 in church funds meant for the purchase of land to build a church in El Salvador and a trailer for a new congregation in North Carolina. Both were lay leaders of the Pentecostal Nuevo Renacer church in Baltimore. A Virginia state trooper stopped them for “speeding and following too closely.” After showing the trooper documents indicating that they belonged to a tax-exempt church, and that the cash had been collected from congregation members, the trooper disregarded their explanations, saying they contained inconsistencies. He called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which accepted the seizure for the “Equitable Sharing Program,” and he escorted the men to a nearby police station. He did not issue a ticket but seized the cash.

In this case, which is widely cited as a case study in civil forfeiture abuse, there wasn’t even a suspected crime, simply the slim chance, through “inconsistencies” that the money was in some way or another, come by illegally, despite the obvious tax paperwork and church documentation. Speeding and following too closely are not charges that are enough to justify confiscating their money, yet that was the only “crime” actually committed, besides being a minority driving with a large amount of cash, which has apparently become the most pressing crime of the 21st century.

This is one of many such stories that demonstrates the obvious profit motive that has been given to this country’s police organizations. Policing-for-profit has become a very real problem, and it can be seen most clearly in the fast and loose style of confiscation that is running rampant in modern-day policing. The most shocking of all, is not that your entire life can be stolen because your neighbor mistakenly thought your backyard okra was actually marijuana, but that even after the unconstitutional asset seizure, when you are found to be clear of all hypothetical charges, it’s then on the individual to jump through hoops to get their lawful belongings returned; that is assuming that the officers have not yet auctioned them off. In many cases one never gets their possessions returned, despite being cleared of any wrongdoing. In fact, in most cases, those whose assets are being seized, simply cannot afford the legal fees that are required to take the necessary steps to get back their life, so they choose to walk away.

In Clarke’s case, the money was seized under the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program, which entitles local and state law enforcement agencies to up to 80 percent of the proceeds from seized cash and property. From 2008 to 2013, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice, $6.8 billion in cash and property has been seized through the Equitable Sharing Program, most of which is from those who simply do not have the means or the time it would take (by design) to fight for their own possessions to be rightfully returned.

It is important to understand, that in a state where anything less than 100 grams of cannabis is considered a misdemeanor, even if he did in fact have a joint in his pocket (which he did not), by Ohio state law, it still would not have justified robbing this young man of his life savings. Yet the reality is that he only smelled of cannabis and was not breaking any law at the time the police officers decided to steal his college money.

Though just two agencies—the Drug Enforcement Administration and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport Police—were involved in the seizure of Clarke’s $11,000, 11 agencies across Kentucky and Ohio are now arguing they’re entitled to a cut of the cash. This is cash that has now been clearly shown not to be connected to any nefarious dealings or wrongdoings. This is a sure sign of the levels to which this nation has fallen, when officers of the law are more concerned with the split they will receive from an illegal confiscation, than the fact that the money was illegally taken from a young college student who has now been set back half a decade of savings.

The airport police department is requesting 40 percent of the money and the Cincinnati Police Department wants just 6 percent, with the remaining 11 agencies requesting 3 percent of Clarke’s $11,000 each.

“Every little bit adds up,” says Renee Flaherty, one of Clarke’s lawyers, regarding the money the agencies are requesting. “This just goes to show the perverse financial incentive that underlies civil forfeiture. If the law allows agencies to be able to keep the money they seized themselves, it’s going to incentivize law enforcement to seize as much property as possible.”

According to Institute for Justice, the airport conducted just a “couple dozen” seizures per year during the late 1990s. However, by 2013, the airport participated in 100 seizures, with proceeds totaling more than $2 million.

“The deck is really stacked against property owners, and the law is not really in our favor,” Flaherty said. “But what we’re trying to do is fight back and say, ‘No, the odor of marijuana is not enough to take someone’s life savings when there’s absolutely no evidence of a crime occurring.’”

Almost two years have now passed since Clarke’s money was unjustly taken from him with no due process. He was forced to move back in with his family, and forced to rely on others’ charity to find his way. Flaherty has said she’s confident they have documentation from Clarke’s three jobs and his mother’s benefits to prove exactly where the money came from, yet that is not a guarantee his money will be returned. Clarke’s iPad and phone were interestingly returned only two months after the initial confiscation, which begs the question: Why would the officers return a phone and iPad which they claim were connected to drug activity, unless they were aware that was not the case? And in that event, why have the officers held onto the money, if the other belongings were deemed releasable? Those who are avid Vagabond followers already know the answer..

This country has become atrophic in its inability to recognize the very serious threat that is rising within the system that was designed to protect, yet now is quickly becoming a machine of oppression. Not a soul can be awoken from their reality TV stupor unless the problem lies between them and their government check. Americans must awaken to the reality that these are not the problems that one can artfully pretend are not happening, knowing that their negative side-effects will only hurt later generations; but these are problems that will infiltrate every aspect of American life, not next year; not next month, today; now. This is happening now.

Every moment we as Americans do not find unity in our common cause, is a moment in which those fighting to solely better themselves at the expense of this country are able to inch closer to their goals. If We do not rise together as one nation, we will fall divided as individuals.

Follow the change. Be the change.


Ryan Cristián
"Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see." - John Lennon Driven by a desire for accuracy, chef and independent news stalwart Ryan Cristián has a passion for the Truth. As a recent recipient of the Serena Shim Award For Uncompromising Integrity In Journalism, he understands that Americans want their news to be transparent, devoid of the opulence frothed out by today's corporate media. A cultured and insightful man with a worldly sense, Ryan's unjaded approach offers common sense to the individual racked by the ambiguous news cycle - a vicious and manipulative merry-go-round that keeps trenchant minds at a manageable distance from the truth. Avid writer & editor by day, Truth seeker by night, Ryan's reality defines what it means to be current.

One Reply to “Seizing the American Dream: A Sad Tale of Civil Asset Forfeiture

  1. THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT. Ok? BULLSHIT. You THE PEOPLE have to get off your assess and start holding the dips at the top responsible so as TO CHANGE TO CRIMINAL LAWS AGAINST US. If not? Game Over.

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