Police and Prosecutors Seize Over $100K, Then Allegedly Forge a Document So They Can Keep It

When police and prosecutors can seize and keep cash and property without ever charging anyone with a crime, there are bound to be abuses (just see here, here or here for a small sample).

But if recent allegations are true, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland may have taken this “policing for profit” to the next level by producing a forged document in support of an attempted forfeiture.

In the usual “upside-down world of civil forfeiture,” police and prosecutors already have all the advantages. They can seize and keep cash or property that they merely suspect is involved with criminal activity. And if the owner objects, then he or she has the burden of going to court and proving the property’s innocence.

In Baltimore, however, these legal advantages for the police may not have been enough for one federal prosecutor’s attempt to take Samantha Banks’ cash. Ms. Banks’ case, as The Baltimore City Paper explains, began when a TSA agent found $122,640 in cash in her husband’s bag. After DEA agents seized the cash, a K-9 officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, Joseph Lambert, had his dog sniff it.

Unsurprisingly, as studies show about one third to ninety percent of all U.S. currency is tainted by cocaine, the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics.

Although the government found no drugs and did not charge Ms. Banks or her husband with any crime—she claimed that she and her husband are real estate investors and the money was for a real estate purchase—the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided it had probable cause to believe the money was connected to illegal activity and filed for forfeiture. After all, what did they have to lose? If the government successfully forfeited Ms. Banks’ cash, then the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the DEA, and—through a loophole known as “equitable sharing”—the MTAP could have split the $122,640 amongst themselves.
What came next, even in the context of civil forfeiture, was surprising.

According to a deposition given by the head trainer for the MTAP K-9 team, the police could not find the drug dog’s certification to support the forfeiture action. Instead, an officer—who claims he was acting under a “direct order” from officer Lambert—created a certificate on his home computer and the assistant U.S. attorney, Stefan Cassella, passed it off to Ms. Banks’ attorney as “a reproduction of the original certificate.”

Here is how the head trainer for the MTAP K-9 team describes the document’s authenticity:

Q. Okay. Is this an actual authentic certification?A. No.Q. Is this a fraudulent certification?A. I believe so . . .

And what about the prosecutors who turned over the document? Did they know how it was created?

Q. Okay. Did you—were you concerned about the production of this document?A. Yes.Q. And did you inform anyone about this document?A. Yes.Q. Did you inform the US Attorney’s Office of this document?A. Yes.Q. And you told them that you believe this to be an inauthentic document?A. Yes.

And what about AUSA Cassella’s claim that it was a valid “reproduction”?

Q. Did you agree that it was a duplicate document?A. No.Q. Why did you not agree that it was a duplicate document?A. Because there was no documentation with it to prove that it was a valid document.Q. . . . Is it fair to say this document was generated in preparation for litigation, for this lawsuit?A. This document, yes.

These serious allegations demonstrate the danger in providing police and prosecutors with a financial incentive to take citizens’ property. Now that we are at the point where prosecutors allegedly engage in this type of activity, it is time to, once and for all, stop civil forfeiture.

Stand with IJ and sign the petition to help end policing for profit.

— Brian Richman
Brian Richman is a student at Yale Law School and a clerk at the Institute for Justice

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