Cops take boat and stogies, even without proving a crime

Jeff Southworth and a buddy were sailing into Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, in January when local police intercepted Southworth’s 46-foot sailboat, the Janice Ann, a few miles offshore. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on the scene ordered Southworth to dock and searched the vessel.

When they discovered what was stowed below deck, they led Southworth away in handcuffs.

Why? Customs officers found 33 boxes of cigars. And for that, the U.S. government intends to seize the Janice Ann, which CBP values at $90,000.

“I think my civil liberties have been completely walked over,” says Southworth, a retired Ford Motor Company engineer.

President John F. Kennedy enacted the Cuban embargo in an attempt to hasten the demise of that country’s communist regime. Individuals can face civil and criminal penalties, including jail time for serious violations of the embargo. Southworth may lose his boat because the authorities have decided to pursue civil asset forfeiture.

Unlike with criminal forfeiture, where prosecutors target assets after a criminal conviction, civil forfeiture allows prosecutors to seize  Southworth’s property without proving he committed a crime. The government doesn’t even have to charge him with one. Instead, the government puts the asset itself on trial. To win, prosecutors must convince a judge that a preponderance of the evidence suggests the Janice Ann was an instrument of illegal activity.

“If it’s ever so slightly more likely than not that … your evidence is believable, you win under a preponderance standard,” says David Smith, a Virginia-based lawyer and forfeiture expert.

Southworth maintains his cigars were not Cuban: He says they were cheap, Dominican-made knockoffs he bought for friends as novelty gifts. In an interview with The Daily Caller, Southworth said customs agents told him during the search that a cigar expert at their office could confirm that his cigars were not Cuban. When he arrived at the CBP office on Jan. 3, however, no expert appeared.

Instead, officials told him to take a seat and, hours later, produced an Assent to Forfeiture form that listed 33 boxes of cigars. Southworth, who estimates that he hadn’t slept for 40 hours or eaten for 15 at that point, signed the form, thinking only his cigars would be confiscated.  Instead, the agency seized the entire boat.

A CBP Public Affairs officer told The Daily Caller the agency does not “speak to any specific cases.”