A federal appeals court has struck a major blow against forfeiture and government overreach by ruling that simply having a large amount of cash is not a crime.
The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ordered Chicago police to give two brothers back their life savings of $271,080, which was seized even though they never were charged.
“The government apparently brought no criminal charges against the brothers or anyone else in the house, but it sought forfeiture of the money, contending that it was proceeds of, or had been used or was intended to be used to facilitate, drug trafficking,” Judge Diane Wood wrote in a ruling in late March, blasting the government’s case against Pedro and Abraham Cruz-Hernandez.
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The money involved cash that a drug-sniffing dog found in a safe in the brothers’ van. Police found a small bag of marijuana but no other drugs, and the government alleged that the money was part of “proceeds of, or had been used or was intended to be used to facilitate, drug trafficking.”
Officers claimed that it was drug money because the brothers had a handgun and a hand-written ledger with notes on it. The brothers contended the money had been saved over many years to build a home in their native Mexico.
Wood wrote that the “government has presented virtually no evidence that the brothers are involved in drug trafficking.”
“There was nothing to indicate past or current drug dealing by the brothers or anyone else living with them in the house, nor was there any suggestion that either brother used the bedroom where the apparent drug paraphernalia was found,” Wood wrote. “Though drug dogs had alerted to the safe and currency, the government did not submit to the court any evidence of the dogs’ training, methodology, or field performance.”
The brothers presented evidence that their money was earned legitimately, Wood ruled.
“They documented income since 2000 that between them totaled just over $680,000,” he wrote. “After subtracting the money found in the safe and all other expenses described in their depositions and other records, the brothers had approximately $320,214 — roughly $1,026 each per month — left to cover living expenses. The government pointed to no evidence suggesting that any of the brothers’ evidence of income is fabricated or that they have lavish spending habits. Because the brothers realistically could have saved the $271,080 at issue, there is a genuine dispute of fact that precludes summary judgment for the government.”
The Seventh Circuit vacated the lower court’s ruling, and sent it back to that court for further proceedings. The government now must convince a jury that the money was tainted.
The case was discussed in a blog post at the Institute for Justice’s website.
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