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.”