On February 16th, 2009, KSL Channel 5 and the Deseret News report that the Utah Highway Patrol confiscated nearly $200,000 in cash from a man they pulled over on Interstate 80. But although troopers think it is drug money, they can't prove it, so they let the man go.
It all started on I-80 near 8800 West outside of Salt Lake City. A trooper stopped a South Dakota car for an cracked windshield and improper lane change. After he talked to the 30-year-old male driver and 24-year-old female passenger, the trooper became suspicious of their story and their demeanor, and decided to investigate further, bringing out the canine that was with him. After the dog started scratching and barking around the trunk, creating a probable cause situation, Neff opened it and found about $200,000 in small and large bills neatly folded and bound into about 45 bundles, bagged and then stuffed into a backpack. "No narcotics inside the vehicle. What the dog actually alerted to was the presence of the odor of narcotics that was on the cash itself," UHP Trooper Chamberlin Neff explained. [Ed. Note: Because of the prevalence of the drug trade, as much as 90 percent of all cash in circulation in the United States has "drug residue" on it.]
The driver said the cash was to be donated to a Catholic church in Sacramento, but refused to discuss any further details, including where he got the money. After running a check on the driver and discovering his criminal history, the trooper decided that the driver was taking the money to California to purchase a large quantity of narcotics, so the trooper seized the cash in accordance with Utah Traffic Code Section 41-6a-211. It's not permanently forfeited...yet. But the driver will have to prove his story in court if he wants to get it back. Utah Code Title 24, Chapter 1, Utah Uniform Forfeiture Procedures Act describes the laws governing forfeiture in Utah.
"If it's a legit reason, he was really going to give it to the Catholic church, then he gets his money back. It's just very simple," Neff said. [Ed. Note: Simple for the UHP, yes, but not for the motorist who has to go to the trouble of returning to Utah to beg for his property back.]
Troopers say this kind of thing happens more often than you might think. Utah highways are frequently used for drug trafficking. Despite this, the overwhelmingly majority of the 120 public comments appended to the KSL story are in support of the motorist. Most people are outraged that a person's money could be arbitrarily seized in such a fashion, because it egregiously violates both the Fourth Amendment and the traditional presumption of innocence. It implicitly criminalizes the mere possession of cash.
This can lead to even more serious abuses. The Houston Chronicle is currently reporting on forfeiture literally run amok in Tenaha, Texas. Law enforcement authorities in this East Texas town of 1,000 people seized property from at least 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008, and, to date, filed criminal charges against fewer than half. Virtually anything of value was up for grabs: cash, cell phones, personal jewelry, a pair of sneakers, and often, the very car that was being driven through town. Some affidavits filed by officers relied on the presence of seemingly innocuous property as the only evidence that a crime had occurred.
In one particularly egregious incident, Linda Dorman, a great-grandmother from Akron, Ohio, had $4,000 in cash taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving through Tenaha after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make no mention that anything illegal was found in her van and show no criminal charges filed in the case. She is still waiting for the return of what she calls “her life savings.”
Learn more about the truth behind forfeiture at Fear.org. Forfeiture, as currently executed, is government theft. Trooper Neff is probably 99 percent right; the driver was probably going to use the money to buy drugs. But he has no way of proving it, and to protect our private property rights, should have no right to just confiscate the money. Occasionally, a guilty person must wriggle through in order to better preserve the rights of the many. The only truly constitutional application of asset forefeiture is as a result of a trial, when forfeiture is specifically prescribed by a judge.