North Carolina Man Scores Huge Victory for Liberty Against Civil Asset Forfeiture

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

It’s nice to see an average citizen score a victory against the state. This is especially true when the state is violating the rights of the citizenry – which is often is.

A man from North Carolina is set to regain over $39,000 in cash after Arizona police seized the funds at the Phoenix airport even though they did not charge him with a crime.

Jerry Johnson, who owns a trucking company, claimed he had flown to Phoenix in 2020 to potentially buy a semitruck at auction when police detectives approached him at baggage claim, accused him of being a drug trafficker, and confiscated $39,500. While it is legal to fly domestically with large amounts of cash, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity under civil asset forfeiture laws, regardless of whether the property owner has been charged with a crime.

Johnson attempted to challenge the seizure by providing bank statements and tax returns to prove ownership of the cash. However, the judge presiding over the case ruled that Johnson had failed to establish a legitimate interest in the funds due to inconsistencies in his story and circumstantial evidence presented by prosecutors. This included his criminal record, buying a last-minute ticket with a quick turnaround, appearing nervous in the airport, having three cellphones, and the alleged scent of marijuana on the money.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, represented Johnson on appeal, resulting in the state returning his money after a two-year legal battle. Institute for Justice senior attorney Dan Alban stated that Johnson’s case “potently illustrates the injustice of civil forfeiture even when someone ultimately gets their property back.”

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process through which the government can seize property or assets suspected of being involved in criminal activity, without necessarily charging the owner with a crime. The process is based on the principle that property can be considered guilty and therefore subject to seizure and forfeiture without due process. This is the case even if the owner has not been convicted of a crime.

Proponents of civil asset forfeiture argue that it is an essential tool for law enforcement in the fight against organized crime, drug trafficking, and other criminal activities. By seizing the assets of suspected criminals, law enforcement agencies can deprive them of the means to continue their criminal activities, while also providing a source of funding for future law enforcement operations.

Conversely, opponents of civil asset forfeiture argue that the process violates property rights and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Critics argue that the practice often results in the seizure of property from innocent people who may be unaware of any criminal activity associated with their assets.

Some argue that civil asset forfeiture incentivizes law enforcement agencies to seize as many assets as possible, creating a profit motive for seizures that may not be grounded in any real criminal activity. Critics have also pointed out that the burden of proof in civil asset forfeiture cases is often low, requiring only a preponderance of the evidence, rather than the higher standard of proof required in criminal cases.

Critics have also pointed out that civil asset forfeiture has been disproportionately used against low-income and minority communities, leading to claims of racial and economic injustice. Furthermore, the process can be expensive and time-consuming for property owners to contest, particularly those who cannot afford legal representation, resulting in a chilling effect on the exercise of property rights.

In 2021, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a landmark bill reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, preventing prosecutors and law enforcement agencies from permanently seizing people’s property for alleged criminal wrongdoing without a conviction. The bill passed with bipartisan support.

Under Arizona’s previous system, law enforcement could seize property they believed was connected to a crime, even without a conviction or charges being filed. Opponents of the system have argued that it has led to numerous cases of innocent property owners, such as parents who lose their vehicles or cash due to their adult children’s actions, being unfairly targeted.

The new law requires prosecutors to secure a conviction before most property can be forfeited, and gives innocent property owners greater ability to recover their assets. The law also bars the Attorney General’s Office from using anti-racketeering fund money to pay salaries and gives people more time to challenge the forfeiture of their property in court. Police are also prohibited from coercing individuals into relinquishing their right to their property.

Unfortunately, there are still far too many people who are victimized by this policy. The government is still stealing people’s property without just cause. In states that have not reformed the practice, the process to retrieve ones belongings can be long, tedious, onerous, and expensive because you typically have to pay an attorney to navigate the system for you.

Still, this story is a welcome sign. In states like Arizona, it is now more difficult for the state to abuse its citizens by depriving them of their right to own property.

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