Son Of Disabled Veteran’s Life Savings Taken By Feds Through Asset Forfeiture
A college student and son of a disabled veteran had everything taken from him by the feds, but now he is fighting back.
Charles Clarke, 24, was about to board a flight at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport in February 2014 when he was stopped by police. Two law enforcement officials said an airport employee tipped them off that his checked bag smelled like marijuana.
Clarke told The Daily Caller News Foundation at first he wasn’t worried because he had nothing to hide. He let the officers search his bag and even showed them his prized possession: $11,000 cash he was moving across the country.
The police searched and found no drugs or anything illegal but they still took the cash, money Clarke says he saved over five years from jobs, financial aid, and benefits from the government because his mother is a disabled veteran.
Law enforcement took all the money claiming it was involved in illegal drug trafficking.
When the officers tried to take the money, Clarke said he began calling out for witnesses to see what was happening to him. One officer says Clarke pushed him, but Clarke denies that. Clarke said he put his hand over the money to stop the officers from taking it but never hit an officer.
Clarke was charged with assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, but those charges were later dropped. Clarke has admitted he was a recreational smoker at the time, but he had nothing illegal when officers searched him and says he was certainly no drug dealer.
“I was scared,” Clarke told TheDCNF. “This is my life savings and they took it and I felt like I wasn’t going to get it back.”
In one of the officers’ affidavits, obtained by TheDCNF, the officer verifies that “nothing of evidentiary value” was found in the carry-on bag. The officer says the smell of marijuana, the large amount of money, inability to provide documentation for the money, and the fact that he was traveling on a one-way plane ticket was enough to take his cash.
The feds have yet to give his money back, even though more than a year later Clarke has no conviction, not even a charge in the case.
“This has been very hard,” Clarke told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It’s almost really like words can’t even explain how I feel, almost like heartbroken. I’m being treated like a criminal and I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve had to struggle just because of what they did. It wasn’t right, and I’m still struggling now.”
Now, Clarke has teamed up with the Institute for Justice, a law firm that provides legal help to people they deem victims of this kind of thing, normally called civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture is a widespread practice where police can seize someone’s property and keep it even if they don’t convict or even charge that person with a crime. Once law enforcement has the property, the person must go through the difficult, and often unsuccessful legal process to get their property–whether it’s a vehicle, cash or house–back from the police.
Many police departments are allowed to keep the money they seize and use it to pad their budgets, creating a questionable incentive for seizing cash and property.
Civil forfeiture laws are stacked against people who have property seized. Normally, people are innocent until proven guilty, but with civil asset forfeiture, it’s the opposite. Clarke must prove that his property was not involved in drug activity. The burden of proof rests on him.
“Even though it’s really unfortunate that we have to prove to the court that his money is legitimate we can do that, we have the documentation,” Renée Flaherty, an IJ lawyer on the case, told TheDCNF.
Flaherty said other agencies have tried to get in on the money.
“In this case 13 agencies are vying for Charles’ money so you’ve got 11 agencies who didn’t have anything to do with it trying to get Charles’ money,” she told TheDCNF.
Clarke told TheDCNF that he had to move in with his mother, borrow money from his family, and take out student loans because he didn’t have the money.
“I just want to get my money back,” Clarke told TheDCNF. “I want to help this go viral. Innocent people are being treated like criminals. Nothing is being proven. It’s not right.”
“Carrying cash is not a crime,” IJ Attorney Darpana Sheth said in a statement. “No one should lose their life savings when no drugs or evidence of any crime are found on them or their belongings.”
Carrying may not be a crime, but it is often treated as such. Officers in many states have virtually no restrictions keeping them from seizing cash and putting it in the department’s coffers.
Several states have considered and passed reform of civil asset forfeiture, most notably New Mexico, which set the bar high when it required a criminal conviction before forfeiture takes place and mandated that the forfeited profits not go to the law enforcement agency.
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