POLITICS

Police Stop You While You're Carrying A Bunch Of Cash. What Happens To Your Money?

02/11/2015 11:46 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2015

Last week, police pulled over NFL defensive tackle Letroy Guion was while he was driving in his hometown of Starke, Florida. An officer claimed that Guion had failed to keep his Dodge Ram pickup truck in a single lane and that there was a "strong odor" of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. After brief questioning, police searched Guion's truck and found an unloaded, legally owned handgun, a black backpack containing 357 grams of weed -- a little more than three-quarters of a pound -- and $190,028.81 in cash (and apparently coins). Police arrested Guion and proceeded to put the entire haul on the table (down to the last penny) for a photo op:

guion arrest

Guion was charged with two felonies, one for the marijuana and another for possession of a firearm in commission of a felony. Police secured the cash, though Guion's agent claims the money was from NFL paychecks and that he has bank statements proving it was not related to the drugs. A spokesperson for the Starke Police Department told The Huffington Post they have not received this documentation and that they gave Guion a receipt stating their intent to permanently seize the cash.

It's unclear how Guion's case will proceed, though the large quantity of marijuana will certainly complicate things. Possession of over 20 grams is a felony in Florida, and he had nearly 18 times that. But even without the drugs, police probably would have taken and attempted to keep Guion's cash using a controversial legal tool known as civil asset forfeiture. The incident raises broader questions about what happens when police find large sums of money on any individual, including a law-abiding citizen like you who will probably never see $200,000 in cash, much less drive around with it.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which law enforcement can permanently seize property from suspects.

The practice, used by both local and federal law enforcement agencies, has its modern roots in the 1980s, during the heart of the drug war. Police were looking to expand their arsenal against drug syndicates flush with cash, cars, homes and other expensive items, and asset forfeiture became a way to take that wealth and turn it against them. Certain items became bonuses for police -- cash was confiscated, property was sold, and departments profited as proceeds were funneled back to pay for overtime, equipment, trips to Las Vegas or a new patrol car (or 55 of them). As the practice grew rapidly in size and scope, however, it spiraled out of control and put innocent people in the crossfire.

In many cases, police can take your assets even if you're innocent.

Police regularly seize and adopt property without any conclusive proof of a connection to criminal activity. Under civil asset forfeiture, legal action can be filed against a person's property without ever charging the owner -- much less obtaining a conviction. This has made it an easy process to abuse. Say you're stopped with $11,500 in hard-earned cash while on a house-hunting trip. If police find that money, they can take it even though you haven't committed a crime.

To get seized assets back, owners are often required to definitively prove that their property is not connected to a crime.

"That notion that police can suspect you of wrongdoing, take your property and then flip the burden of proof to you to prove your own innocence just turns the whole idea of innocent until proven guilty on its head," Larry Salzman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, told The Huffington Post.

With the government technically pursuing action against property, not a person, disputes over civil asset forfeiture tend to have memorable case names, like United States v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins.

For decades, federal and local law enforcement seized and adopted assets with seeming impunity.

police dog car search

A police dog conducts a search on a vehicle. K-9 units in many departments around the nation have been trained to sniff out cash.

Much of this activity was encouraged by the federal Equitable Sharing Program. For years, this program allowed state and local authorities to turn seized assets over to federal agencies, which would then seek "adoption" to officially take control of the property, before returning up to 80 percent of the proceeds to the department that made the seizure.

The program gave police a way to skirt state laws on forfeiture, which tend to have more restrictions on the type or value of property that can be seized. Under federal law, assets worth as little as $2,000 are subject to forfeiture, meaning it doesn't take a ridiculous display of wealth to become a target. State laws usually have higher thresholds, and also typically require a higher burden of proof for adoption. In many cases, state laws also limit the percentage of proceeds that go back to departments, often requiring them to share profits with other state agencies.

Cash became a particularly appetizing target for law enforcement agencies, which could put large portions of seized money directly back into their coffers. According to an extensive Washington Post report published last year, since Sept. 11, 2001, local and state police departments participating in the Equitable Sharing Program have seized $2.5 billion in cash from suspects who were never charged.

This led to some unbelievable and unfair incidents of asset forfeiture.

According to the Washington Post, of the nearly 62,000 cash seizures submitted to the Equitable Sharing Program by police between 2001 and 2014, half were of amounts less than $8,800. Regardless of the value of seizures, the majority over this period went undisputed, possibly due to the fact that it's expensive to challenge the government and often difficult to provide sufficient evidence of the property's legitimacy. Victor Ramos Guzman is one person who has faced this frustrating dilemma.

In late 2011, Guzman was driving with his brother-in-law on a Virginia highway when a state trooper sped up beside their vehicle, looked at the two men and pulled them over. As the Washington Post reported last year, the trooper was a top member of a law enforcement network that teaches officers to find assets to seize. He claimed they were speeding and following another vehicle too closely, but never issued a citation, instead getting the two church leaders to consent to a search of their car. Inside, the trooper found $28,500 in cash. Guzman said the money had been donated by parishioners and presented documents to support his claim. He told the officer they were taking the cash to Atlanta to negotiate the purchase of a plot of land in El Salvador to build a new church. Other portions of the cash, Guzman said, were set aside to buy a trailer for a new church congregation in North Carolina and for the cost of the road trip. The trooper didn't accept their explanation, and ordered them to drive to the police station to turn over the money. Guzman and his brother-in-law left with only a receipt.

Virginia State Police had no proof that the funds were related to a crime, but suspected they were part of a cash-smuggling operation. To get the money back, Guzman would have to prove they weren't. Luckily, he was able to find a lawyer to take his case pro bono. After Guzman officially provided documentation verifying the source of the cash, the government returned the funds three months later.

Salzman points out that many victims of asset forfeiture have a much harder time fighting such seizures.

"For a lot of people this process is quite difficult," Salzman said. "It borders on impossible to document where every dollar that they have came from, how it flowed through your bank, what the sources of it were, what your expenses are. It can become a very complicated task to prove to a level of certainty where every dollar that might have been seized has come from."

For more examples of police abusing civil asset forfeiture -- and in many cases getting away with it -- read The Washington Post's expose.

The Department of Justice recently announced changes to the Equitable Sharing Program.

eric holder

In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new restrictions on the program, prohibiting independently operating state and local authorities from submitting seized assets to federal agencies for adoption unless the property directly relates to public safety concerns. Items like firearms and explosives can still be turned over, for example, but a backpack full of cash cannot.

The changes may pare back some types of asset forfeiture, but critics warn that the exceptions to Holder's reforms swallow the rule.

Under Holder's order, seizures made by state and local agencies working with federal authorities in a joint task force or cooperating with a federal investigation may still be submitted for federal adoption. The recently released Department of Justice budget projected little change in the bottom line of police departments that benefit from federal profit-sharing.

Furthermore, asset forfeiture at the state level remains untouched, meaning that state and local authorities are still free to seize and adopt property as long as they follow their own state's rules. Many states have lax standards of proof for seized assets and allow law enforcement to keep 100 percent of the profits from forfeiture, leaving plenty of incentive for officers to go hunting for seizures.

So you're stopped by police while carrying a bunch of cash. What happens to your money?

We'll go ahead and assume that the stack of $100 bills you're carrying around was obtained through completely legal means and that you weren't breaking the law when you were confronted by police. Congratulations on being a law-abiding citizen, but you're still probably not going home with your money.

"In most states the police are going to take it, and the question then becomes what happens to that money?" said Salzman. "Does the state get to permanently deprive you of that money or are you ultimately going to get it back?"

It's not illegal to carry around cash, but most officers will likely assume that any large sum is somehow related to a criminal activity. Police would then seize and secure it, hoping they could make the case to keep it permanently. What happens next depends both on where you are stopped and who stopped you. If the officers are working in a federal joint task force or as part of a federal investigation -- say you happen to be driving through a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area -- your money can still be submitted for adoption through the Equitable Sharing Program. If not, you'll be at the mercy of state laws.

Forfeiture laws vary by state and may determine an officer's willingness to seize your money without a charge. In Nebraska, for example, to adopt property, law enforcement must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it is related to criminal activity. Nebraska has some of the strongest asset forfeiture protections in the nation, and the fact that owners are presumed innocent under the law could discourage the practice in some scenarios.

Florida -- where police stopped Guion -- has more permissive laws. The Institute for Justice gives the state a D grade, explaining that the "government must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property was related to criminal activity and thus can be forfeited, a higher standard than most states but still less than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required for a criminal conviction."

Recovering your money in Florida would likely then depend on what evidence is considered to be "clear and convincing," as well as your ability to provide evidence to disprove the government's claims of a connection to criminal activity. At any rate, the ensuing legal battle is likely to cost you significant time and money.

As for Guion, it's possible that he'll face an uphill battle to reclaim his $190,028.81. Does the fact that the marijuana was found in the same bag as the cash constitute "clear and convincing evidence" that the two are related? Would the bank statements his agent mentioned be enough to disprove a connection, or could the state still make the case that the money was tied to the sale or purchase of the marijuana? Furthermore, considering Guion is facing substantial drug charges, prosecutors could also seek criminal forfeiture of the cash -- a separate legal process in which adoption would be linked to the outcome of the criminal trial.

Just because you'll never see $200,000 in cash doesn't mean you couldn't become a victim of asset forfeiture abuse.

Take the case of Matt Lee, who in 2011 was pulled over by drug interdiction police in Nevada while on the last leg of a cross-country move from Michigan to California. In an ensuing K-9 search, police discovered $2,400 in cash, loaned to Lee by his father. Despite the fact that officers had no proof of any connection to a crime -- Lee had never even been arrested before -- they seized the cash and left the 31-year-old to complete the trip with only $151. Lee later tried to reclaim his cash. He hired a lawyer, and the county eventually agreed to return his money. By then, the legal fees had totaled $1,269.44, leaving Lee with less than half of the money that had been taken from him.

civil asset forfeiture

After more than two years, Matt Lee won back his $2,400 taken from him through civil forfeiture. As part of the agreement, he had to sign a form releasing Humboldt County Sheriff department of any liability. (Photo by Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Salzman predicts controversial seizures like this will continue until laws are reformed and police no longer have clear incentive to forfeit property without evidence.

"So long as civil forfeiture is encouraging police to pursue cash, sometimes even ahead of crime, you become a target," he said, going on to note that cops aren't the only ones who make carrying large quantities of cash a risky prospect.

Until then, maybe it's just safer to write checks or use a new digital payment option. But if you absolutely must carry serious amounts of cash, know the risks and know your rights. A police officer can't seize your legitimately acquired money if he or she never knows it exists.

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