Arlington, Va.—Carrying large amounts of cash is not a crime, yet thousands of Americans who do so are being treated like criminals. Law enforcement officials are using civil forfeiture to seize the cash of domestic travelers at airports, like 24-year-old Charles Clarke. Charles had $11,000 seized at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport in 2014.
In February 2014, law enforcement officials took Charles’ entire life savings right before he was scheduled to board a flight, and they have kept his money for over a year. Now Charles has teamed up with the Institute for Justice, which has successfully represented property owners as part of its initiative to end civil forfeiture nationwide, to fight back in federal court.
“I saved up the money to use for living expenses and for future savings, and now it is gone,” said Charles Clarke. “After the money was seized, it was very hard for me to make ends meet. I had to borrow money from family, and I was embarrassed. No one should have to go through the nightmare I went through simply because they choose to carry their hard-earned cash.”
Charles saved his money for the past five years from financial aid, various jobs, educational benefits based on his mother’s status as a disabled veteran and gifts from family. Charles was visiting relatives in Cincinnati while he and his mother were moving to a new apartment back in Florida. He did not want to lose the $11,000, so he took it with him. On his way home, law enforcement officials at the airport seized Charles’ money because they claimed his checked bag smelled like marijuana. Although Charles was a recreational smoker at the time, the officers did not find any drugs or anything illegal on his person or in his carry-on or checked bag. The government should have to prove that Charles committed a crime if it wants to keep his money.
“Carrying cash is not a crime,” explained IJ Attorney Darpana Sheth. “No one should lose their life savings when no drugs or evidence of any crime are found on them or their belongings.”
Since the late 1990s, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport police took part in a couple dozen seizures per year—but by 2013 that figure skyrocketed to almost 100 seizures, totaling more than $2 million.
Under a federal program called equitable sharing, state and local police receive up to 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds in exchange for referring seized property to federal authorities. Under this program, 13 different law enforcement agencies from Kentucky and Ohio are seeking their cut of Charles’ money, even though 11 of those agencies were not involved in the seizure. Although earlier this year the Justice Department curtailed one of the most egregious aspects of equitable sharing after widespread criticism, Charles’ case and the behavior of these law enforcement agencies demonstrate why the policy changes are insufficient to stem the problem.
“Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Charles,” said IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty. “Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs.”