How to Beat Legalized Larceny
Six months after the Drug Enforcement Administration stole $43,000 from Stacy Jones at a North Carolina airport, her lawyer, Dan Alban, received a letter from the aptly named Douglas Kash, a senior attorney in the DEA’s Asset Forfeiture Section. “I am writing to inform you of the decision to return the above-referenced property,” Kash said.
While the DEA offered no explanation for its sudden benevolence, the reversal fit a pattern: Government bullies who use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize allegedly crime-tainted property from innocent people tend to back down when they encounter unexpected resistance. But because challenging a forfeiture is complicated and expensive, most targets of legalized larceny are in no position to put up a fight.
On May 19, Jones and her husband, who had flown to North Carolina for a casino reopening, were on their way back to Tampa, having cut their visit short because of a death in the family. They had brought cash with them for gambling and acquired more after selling a car to friends.
Although Jones was doing nothing illegal, an airport screener alerted a sheriff’s deputy, who in turn alerted the DEA, which tends to view large amounts of cash as inherently suspicious. Based on nothing more than a hunch that the money was connected to illegal activity, the DEA seized it—the first step in a confiscation process that the government can complete without ever filing criminal charges.
In July, Jones joined a class-action lawsuit that the Institute for Justice (I.J.) originally filed in January, arguing that the DEA’s practice of robbing travelers violates the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. Four months later, the DEA evidently decided that Jones wasn’t a criminal after all.
Jones’ experience mirrored what had happened with the lead plaintiffs i
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