Victim of Airport Seizure Gets His $11,000 Back With Interest

Charles Clarke, the college student who was robbed of $11,000 in cash by cops at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport two years ago, will get his money back with interest under an agreement he reached with the Justice Department this week. Claiming Clarke's checked suitcase smelled of marijuana, the cops argued that the money in his carry-on bag must have something to do with drugs, which would make it forfeitable under federal law. But Clarke challenged the forfeiture with help from the Institute for Justice, and the government blinked.

Clarke, who admitted smoking pot but insisted he had never sold it, had saved the money over five years from wages, financial aid, and family gifts. He took it with him for safekeeping while visiting relatives in Cincinnati and was stopped on the way back to his home in Florida by an airport detective and a local police officer who had been deputized by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Their agencies benefit from federal forfeitures through the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Program.

To take the money, the cops needed only probable cause to believe it was connected to illegal drug activity in some way; they did not even have to specify how. The forfeiture complaint was, as usual in such cases, maddeningly vague, claiming the money "was furnished or intended to be furnished in exchange for controlled substances, was proceeds traceable to such an exchange, or was intended to be used to facilitate the illegal sale of narcotics." Although the cops found no drugs in Clarke's bags or on his person and did not charge him with a crime, the pot smell and the large amount of cash were enough to make the money disappear.

To keep the money, the government theoretically had to show that it more likely than not came from selling drugs or was intended to buy them. But that burden applied only if Clarke had the means to challenge the forfeiture once the government had taken his savings. Innocent owners often find that standing up for their rights costs more than the value of the property they are trying to get back. Luckily for Clarke, he had the Institute for Justice in his corner.

"Charles is very pleased that he will get his life savings back and that the whole ordeal is now behind him," said I.J. attorney Darpana Sheth. "Civil forfeiture is wrong. It allows law enforcement to seize and keep property without ever charging someone with a crime. Even worse, it encourages law enforcement to seize as much money and property as possible by allowing agencies to keep the proceeds for themselves. The Institute for Justice will continue to lead the fight to abolish civil forfeiture and end this perverse financial incentive."

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