Police Seized $8,040 From Non-Criminal Woman And Now She Can't Get It Back
Here in the United States of America, one cannot be sent to prison for a crime unless they plead guilty or a jury of their peers finds them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, we all know that this doesn't always work out so well, but it's at least the general goal.
Also here in the United States of America, the police can take your money or your stuff and not give it back to you even if you are neither convicted of nor even charged with a crime.
In the case of Cristal Starling, police in Rochester, New York, raided her home in 2020 because they suspected that her boyfriend at the time was selling drugs. Though they didn't find drugs, they did find the $8,040 in cash Ms. Starling had saved up from running a mobile food cart to buy a food truck, so they just took that and her personal and work vehicles instead.
While the police did find drugs at the then-boyfriend's mother's home, he was acquitted at trial. Cristal Starling got her two vehicles back, but she did not get that money. Rather, it was sent to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for civil forfeiture, for a program called "equitable sharing." This is the very inequitable program in which the police steal your money and then divvy it up between themselves and federal law enforcement.
The DEA contacted Ms. Starling, informing her of the steps she needed to take to contest the forfeiture, and she took them. She was not, however, told that there was a competing action in federal court to keep her money, and she ended up missing the deadline to contest that one.
Gary Craig at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports:
"After trial I tried to get my money back," she said. "They sent me through this whole process of trying to get it through the courts and I still did not get it."
Court papers show that federal prosecutors maintained that Starling missed deadlines for the administrative filing of claims for the return of the seized money, and that her claim was first made three months after a default awarded the money to the government. Starling said she was on vacation, and records supported this claim, at a time when the government said it gave "direct notice."
A federal judge upheld the decision by authorities to keep Starling's money, which is typically then divided among police agencies.
How fabulously convenient for them.
Cristal Starling, however, is not giving up. She's currently being represented in her case by the non-profit law firm Institute of Justice, which has represented other victims of civil forfeiture across the nation, including "a case in Nevada where police took a Marine veteran’s life savings without charging him with a crime, and a class action lawsuit challenging an Indiana law that allows private attorneys to profit off prosecuting civil forfeiture cases."
The system is designed to make it more expensive to get one's money back than to just let law enforcement have it, the law firm explains.
The process for challenging a forfeiture is an incredibly convoluted one and includes various steps along the way where defendants risk losing their money forever, especially without professional legal help. Winning, on the other hand, requires a series of perfect decisions that take a long time. Because the amounts seized tend to be small, it’s often cost-prohibitive for individuals to hire attorneys and fight to get their money back. For example, Cristal was told that she could hire an attorney for $5,000, which is more than half the total that was seized from her.
There are over 400 federal statutes on the books that allow law enforcement to take the money and possessions of not only those they accuse of crimes, but also people who have done absolutely nothing illegal themselves. One especially popular method is one in which police pull people over for minor traffic infractions, perform warrantless searches of their vehicle, and take any cash they find. In 2014, The Washington Post documented 400 of these traffic stops in 17 states, none of which led to an actual arrest.
In cases where people are actually convicted of crimes, white collar crimes in particular, civil forfeiture is a way of providing restitution to victims. That's entirely reasonable. Where it becomes unreasonable and, in fact, quite unfathomable, is when the government seizes the assets of those found innocent, or worse, those who were never charged or even accused of any crime whatsoever. This is the case with over 80 percent of these seizures.
Why does this happen? Well, in our criminal justice system, the prosecution must prove that a person is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." In civil forfeiture, it's not the person who is charged, but the thing that law enforcement seized, and it is up to the owner to prove that the inanimate object is innocent. This results in fun case names like United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins or Texas v. One Gold Crucifix, a case in which "[t]he police had confiscated a simple gold cross that a woman wore around her neck after pulling her over for a minor traffic violation. No contraband was reported, no criminal charges were filed, and no traffic ticket was issued."
Those who support civil asset forfeiture say that it is a necessary tool to help fight crime and "The War on Drugs," and make sure that crime doesn't pay, and that "equitable sharing" promotes cooperation between state and federal law enforcement, as both want to get their hands on that money. This, however, can be accomplished in a non-sociopathic way, by keeping to criminal forfeiture only and requiring a conviction to seize any assets. The Department of Justice argues that "civil forfeiture is an essential tool when the government seeks to forfeit the property of fugitives, defendants who have died, or where it can prove that the property was involved in a crime, but cannot prove who the wrongdoer was."
If that were anywhere near the majority of these cases, that might be reasonable. However, in cases like Ms. Starling's, where police are stealing money that they can in no way prove had anything at all to do with any crime whatsoever, it's pretty clear that it is not.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse