The Washington Post

Another forfeiture outrage

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has the story:

A driver from Cedarburg who got pulled over in 2009 near Lincoln, Neb., lost $48,100 after state troopers there seized it as suspected drug money, but a federal appeals court now says the government had no real grounds to keep the cash.

“Their only evidence was theoretical and conjectural,” said Patrick Brennan, the Milwaukee attorney who argued for the money’s return. He was unsuccessful at a 2012 trial before prevailing on appeal on Friday when the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision in the government’s favor . . .

The appeals court ordered the money returned, a fairly unusual result when citizens challenge large cash forfeitures.

The driver, John Nelson, was 22 when he set out from Cedarburg for Colorado in 2009. He was planning to move there, so he took his family’s RV, large enough to accommodate Nelson’s two dogs, to save him the cost of hotels.

He also took along, in a small safe, all his important personal papers to set up residency. And nearly $50,000 in cash. He said the money was the result of selling bonds his grandmother had given him.

Nelson stayed with friends in Denver a few weeks but learned the city restricts ownership of pit bulls, the breed of one of Nelson’s dogs. So he headed back to Wisconsin in October.

That’s when he was pulled over. He did have a half ounce of pot on him. But there was no evidence he was a drug dealer, other than the cash and the police officer’s assertion that he “looked nervous.” It took Nelson nearly five years to get back his money and property. I don’t know if his attorney took his case pro bono, but if he didn’t, Nelson won’t be reimbursed for his legal costs. Nor will be reimbursed for any money he had to spend traveling to Nebraska for hearings or depositions. He also won’t be paid any interest he might have earned while the Nebraska State Police held on to his money.

One of the officers testified that he also suspicious of Nelson because he was coming from Colorado, “a known source state for marijuana.” I suspect we’ll begin to see more of this now that pot is full-blown legal there. Police agencies in neighboring states are bound to start seeing Colorado license plates as advertisements for motorized cash registers.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."



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Radley Balko · June 30, 2014