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Property seized in drug forfeitures is on the rise

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The number of civil drug forfeitures filed to date in the U.S. Southern District of Georgia Court has already outpaced the total number of cases in 2011.

Five cases requesting a combined $74,693 in cash and a Suzuki motorcycle are pending through May 31, compared to the four cases filed each year from 2008 through 2011.

The civil cases are filed under a United States code that allows law enforcement to seize money or property “intended” to be furnished or used to violate the Controlled Substance Act. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which is punitive in nature and requested post-conviction, a civil forfeiture does not require an indictment or criminal charge before assets can be seized.

Such a case was filed May 15 and stems from a McDuffie County traffic stop Oct. 19 on Interstate 20. According to the complaint, two sheriff’s deputies smelled marijuana coming from the car, and the driver, William Ewell Jr., said he’d been arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession “back in the day.” A search of the car found a duffel bag that contained “a strong odor of raw marijuana” and a book bag with marijuana flakes, but no drugs.

Deputies seized $15,252 in bundles of cash from the car that night, which Ewell said was a payment to his Florence, S.C., business, Grind Brothas. The next night, the same rental car was stopped and again the odor of burnt marijuana was coming from the car, according to the complaint. A passenger, Brittney Williams, was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Deputies seized $3,297 in cash that night, for a combined claim of $18,549.

Shortly after the traffic stop, the Drug Enforcement Administration “adopted” the money and eventually filed a claim through the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Savannah.

Messages left for Ewell through his Grind Brothas business were not returned, nor did McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall respond to requests for comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Durham gave several explanations for the increased number of civil forfeitures this year. Durham said an assistant U.S. attorney is now dedicated to asset forfeiture and that there have been fewer settlements before a case is filed.

He added that state and local law enforcement are turning more frequently to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for assistance because they have fewer resources to handle forfeitures.

Durham defended civil forfeitures as a method for collecting contraband if a defendant cannot be prosecuted because he or she is out of the country or deceased. It’s also a tool to seize assets if an arrest occurs before a big investigation is concluded, Durham said.

But civil rights advocacy groups protest that civil forfeitures are in direct contradiction to the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment says that no one is to be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

“You’re literally guilty until proven innocent,” said David West, a Marietta, Ga., forfeiture attorney.

Under civil forfeiture law, the claimant must prove that the money had a legitimate purpose. Sometimes it’s a drug dealer who is willing to count the cash loss as a business expense. Other times it’s someone involved in a major transaction, such as the purchase of a vehicle.

The reasons defendants give for carrying large sums of cash vary. An Aug. 18 traffic stop in Washington, Ga., yielded $10,073 in cash from a car driven by Gregore A. Gordon. Gordon, who was out on bond at the time on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, said the cash came from the sale of pit bull puppies and his music business. No drugs were found in his possession that day.

On Oct. 14, Richmond County deputies seized $31,000 from a car stopped on I-20. The driver, Antonio Cuin, said the cash consisted of “gambling proceeds” and his life savings over the past four years. Deputies said they found traces of marijuana, but not enough to collect or test, along with a text message in Cuin’s phone that contained references to marijuana. He was not arrested.

Some forfeitures include drug charges, as was the case with a Richmond County traffic stop on July 7, 2010, on Mike Padgett Highway. Marcus Scurry was arrested on an outstanding warrant and a charge of possession of marijuana after deputies said they found 2.5 grams of marijuana on the passenger side floor board. Scurry said he had $17,520 in cash because banks are a waste of time, according to court papers.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, said making claims in civil court lowers the burden of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “the preponderance of the evidence.”

“Every American knows in his heart that someone is innocent until proven guilty,” McGrath said. “Forfeiture law flips that on its head.”

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itsanotherday1
43670
Points
itsanotherday1 06/04/12 - 08:13 am
6
0
As much as I detest drug

As much as I detest drug dealers, I have to agree with this statement:

“Every American knows in his heart that someone is innocent until proven guilty,” McGrath said. “Forfeiture law flips that on its head.”

dstewartsr
20389
Points
dstewartsr 06/04/12 - 09:09 am
5
0
What the government taketh

... is never given back without a fight. This was a bad law. Just because the intent was good does nothing to change that; the police, with the complicity of the courts have made theft by taking -- a crime when individuals do it-- into a government sanctioned overreach of power.

dstewartsr
20389
Points
dstewartsr 06/04/12 - 09:24 am
5
0
More problematic

...is what happens to the funds. Like the old adage goes; follow the money. As it turns out, the court, that bastion of lawyers --a breed well known for their moral rectitude-- get some of the booty. That's correct; the selfsame court ruling on the validity of the seizure gets a portion of the funds; the police also get their cut of the loot.

No way a system like that could be abused.

madgerman
236
Points
madgerman 06/04/12 - 10:19 am
0
0
We are a country of laws and
Unpublished

We are a country of laws and to insure our laws are equitable, we continously elect lawyers to represent us. I wonder why lawyers see such a need to be our representative in law making matters. P.S. I have often wondered why our laws are written in a language that is familiar to a very small segment of society? But in any event we have that all too familiar catch all "ignorance of the law is no excuse.

omnomnom
3964
Points
omnomnom 06/04/12 - 10:27 am
3
1
and now for the other side of the article

Although civil forfeiture remained a relative backwater in American law for many years, modern civil forfeiture expanded greatly during the early 1980s as governments at all levels stepped up the war on drugs. No longer tied to the practical necessities of enforcing maritime law, the forfeiture power now applies to a broad range of crimes. Almost all states and the federal government have civil forfeiture laws, and Georgia’s is among the worst." - Source: Worrall, John L., "Asset Forfeiture," Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, November 2008), p. 4.
http://www.ij.org/images/pdf_folder/other_pubs/forfeitingaccountabilityf...

http://www.newschannel5.com/story/18241221/man-loses-22000-in-new-polici... ....this man was going to use cash to guy a car off of craigslist

http://privateofficernews.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/sc-police-captain-poc... ....this is what can happen with some of the siezed cash

people carrying large amounts of cash are being targeted ya'll. start carrying diamonds (haha). or just use a credit card like a good lil person and pay j.p. morgan for the right to purchase things.

dichotomy
33484
Points
dichotomy 06/04/12 - 11:33 am
5
0
It's an awful law. In fact,

It's an awful law. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it goes against every principle upon which our justice system was founded. Another instance where what sounded like a "fair" idea has creeped until it has become a travesty of justice. When we allowed this seizure thing to start it involved taking the assets of convicted drug dealers. Now law enforcement agencies seize the cash of anyone they happen to stop with a few hundred bucks in their pocket even if they have not committed a crime. I believe that law enforcment sometimes targets travelers for the purpose of seizing their cash. Migrant workers, people who travel the back roads buying antiques and such. If you happen to have $5K in your pocket you MUST be a drug dealer so we will take your money and you must prove that you aren't. We have let this get out of hand and it should be a lesson to us to NEVER give up our rights in order to take shortcuts in enforcing the law. Our law enforcement people have now become "criminal" . Unwarranted property seizures and "no knock" search warrants have resulted in travesties and tragedies and the offending law enforcment agencies are never so much as inconvenienced, much less punished.

Retired Army
17512
Points
Retired Army 06/04/12 - 11:39 am
5
1
Could be a first in the

Could be a first in the making. Thumbs up to all preceeding comments.

The so-called "War on Drugs' is a failure in every aspect and this is just one of them. Not, to mention a real problem for the "innocent until proven guilty" concept.

DMPerryJr
1698
Points
DMPerryJr 06/04/12 - 11:57 am
2
0
Folks, The Country

is indeed in the toilet when authorities can just take your stuff without proving you guilty of anything. It just blows my mind.

dichotomy
33484
Points
dichotomy 06/04/12 - 12:31 pm
3
0
It's worse than that

It's worse than that DMPerryJr. They can reach into your wallet and take your cash even when they have no probable cause to even think you are a drug dealer. It's been done on simple traffic stops in a lot of places simply because someone had cash in their wallet or briefcase and they stupidly gave the officer "permission" to search their vehicle. Of course if they had not given permission the cops would have simply brought out a dog and CLAIMED it hit on something. Louisianna had/has a terrible reputation for doing that, even on the major interstate highways.

dstewartsr
20389
Points
dstewartsr 06/04/12 - 06:48 pm
2
0
Lived in Lousiana

...and what you wrote at 12:31 is absolutely correct. Years ago, one of the major networks did an expose; they followed a 'bait' vehicle --a late model luxury car with a minority driving-- and it was repeatedly hit by what may be laughingly referred to as 'law enforcement.' The vehicle was pulled over for speeding, improper lane change, weaving and other minor infractions. The fly in the state's case ointment? The bait vehicle was being filmed the entire time by a well equipped chase vehicle. On camera the govenor and head of the highway patrol promised an investigation.

After the segment aired there was an obscenely short period when the shakedowns were curtailed, then went right back to what must be accurately called 'highway robbery.' Interstate 95 North Florida through Georgia is as thoroughly and efficiently picked over by the police as by medieval robber barons.

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