Follow the Money

Many years ago, people used to use these greenish, papers things to pay for stuff they would buy.  Some people would carry big wads of it around with them to make themselves appear important and impress their friends. 

Others, for personal reasons, preferred to keep it close rather than hand it over to people they didn’t know at these places called banks.  Still others had businesses where people would give them these greenish, papers things, and they would use some portion of it to give to other people to buy the stuff they sold.  This was called “normal” back then.

But that was years ago.

The problem was that the government hated not knowing who was walking about with these greenish, paper things.  It drove the government crazy.  Some of these people obtained the paper stuff from selling illegal drugs, or bodies, or from people who felt the need to gamble but weren’t very good at it.  But mostly drugs. The government couldn’t stand the idea that these people had this greenish, paper stuff and the government wasn’t getting its piece.  Eventually, it became too much for even a benevolent dictatorship to take.

About a generation ago, the government of the United States went to war against cash.  Borne was the presumption that currency was derived from crime unless proven otherwise.  There was no catchy name for this war, like the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, though it was connected up to both by negative inference.  But even it the wholesale absence of evidence that cash had any connection to any illegal activity, it was “guilty.”

The government began creating laws, rules, and actions, borrowing liberally from antiquated concepts like the “res” offends the sovereign, to invigorate civil forfeiture.  Where once, the maxim was “the law abhors a forfeiture,” it became essentially overnight, that cash was dirty, and was forfeited to the government unless you could prove otherwise.

And, conveniently, it meant that the government got to keep it. 

Radley Balko posts this investigative report from Nashville:

Despite a certain humor in hearing various fingers of law enforcement fight over the authority to take cash, even in the absence of any wrongdoing, the fact that the police have made the seizure of currency a basic function is inexcusable.

The particular scam shown in the video is a favorite, typically targeting cars with out of state license plates from places where drugs are likely to go and from which cash is likely to return.  The drivers, stopped on an interstate far from home, especially one reputed to be a bit less accommodating of foreigners, people of color or with last names ending in vowels, and happy to use weapons, are least likely to put up a fight on the side of the road.  They fear the consequences when asked whether they have anything to hide, or would mind a quick search.  There is good reason to be afraid.

And few people are equipped to fight for the return of their money.  The fight must be conducted in a far away land, is best done with the aid of a knowledgeable lawyer (which means there is new money spent to get back old money) and risks being singled out as a drug dealer/ terrorist when the claim and demand are filed.  Having walked away from the seizure without an arrest, most people are reluctant to tempt fate by demanding its return.

Even if they show the nerve to challenge the seizure, the standard of proof for the government to keep the money is probable cause. It doesn’t get much easier, particularly when the negative inference is applied and the burden is on the claimant, rather than the cops, to prove the money is clean and lawful. 

Years ago, television advertisements sought to induce people to put plastic in their wallet where once greenish paper stuff reigned supreme.  Today, it’s only a matter of your favorite color plastic, because it’s not like law-abiding people would ever use cash.

4 comments on “Follow the Money

  1. Ahcuah

    For today, Radley’s “Morning Links” contains a story about how many of the dealers are now switching to pre-paid credit cards. They’re not subject to regulation (do I need to add, “yet”) and can be used to move large amounts of cash. And they are much less obvious as an item for seizure (until the cops just start taking everybody’s credit cards).

    It seems that in a drug war they always find a way around whatever the government does. And so it ratchets.

  2. SHG

    First, please bear in mind that any mention of the issue of forfeiture does not mean that it’s an open threat for anything and everything conceivably related.  Secondly, any report that says

    No one knows how big a role the cards play in moving the more than $20 billion in drug earnings that U.S. authorities estimate crosses from the U.S. to Mexico annually.

    is utterly meaningless.  The phrase, “no one knows,” doesn’t mean “lots,” but rather absolutely nothing. It’s a sucker phrase for the unwary.

  3. Wayne Clemons

    I was shocked by this news story. Not the story itself… I’ve been practicing criminal defense here long enough to know about it. But that the media would actually investigate it, and confront some of these characters with genuinely hard hitting questions. Perhaps I ought to start watching my local news more often. Thanks for the tip.

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