The high cost of innocence when police seize cash

The high cost of innocence when police seize cash
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Miami mother Miladis Salgado fought back and won when federal agents raided her home and seized her life savings. But victory came at a price.

Salgado, who did nothing wrong and faced no arrest or criminal charges, had to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and waste hundreds of hours in lost productivity to prove that her money was clean — all while working two jobs and caring for two children.

The ordeal started with a bad tip that Salgado’s estranged husband was dealing drugs. In reality, he earned legitimate income as the owner of a garment sales company, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) showed up anyway on May 11, 2015. While searching the home, agents found no contraband but they discovered a shoebox containing $15,000 in the back of Salgado’s closet.

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The cash, which included gifts from relatives to fund a “quinceañera” for Salgado’s daughter — the celebration of her 15th birthday — had no connection to crime. Yet the agents seized the money anyway using civil forfeiture, which allows the government to take and keep cash, cars and other valuables without prosecuting anyone.

All the government must do to win is link assets to wrongdoing, essentially putting inanimate objects on trial rather than humans. The law enforcement maneuver forces property owners into civil court, rather than criminal court, where they have no right to counsel and fewer protections against weak allegations.

Despite this, Salgado persevered and recovered her money after two years. But by then her daughter’s once-in-a-lifetime birthday celebration was spoiled and Salgado was stuck with legal bills that consumed about one-third of her savings. Unfortunately, she received no apology or restoration of what rightfully belonged to her.

Other property owners report similar injustices following civil forfeiture, which invites abuse by allowing police and prosecutors in most jurisdictions to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds for their own agencies. Many agencies employ stall tactics to outlast resistance.

Siblings David and Larry Vocatura, co-owners of a Connecticut family bakery, fought for more than three years to recover assets that federal agents took from them. Kentucky vehicle owner Gerardo Serrano fought for two years for the return of his pickup truck. And Indiana vehicle owner Tyson Timbs waged an eight-year battle for the return of his Land Rover.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, has represented all of these property owners and dozens more. Even in best-case scenarios, citizens who successfully navigate the bureaucratic maze must endure months or years of deprivation.

Frustrating, Corrupt, Unfair: Civil Forfeiture in the Words of Its Victims,” an Institute for Justice report published this month, quantifies the problem using survey responses from 407 civil forfeiture victims in Philadelphia. Prosecutors “would always ask for a continuance,” survey respondent Miguel Zeledon said. “Postpone it for another month, and another month, and it just went on like that for almost two-and-a-half years.”

The survey shows that when property owners beat civil forfeiture, which happened less than one-third of the time, cases stretched for an average of nine months. Many people simply walked away, cutting their losses. “The police buried me in paperwork,” one survey respondent said. “I was so overwhelmed and my lawyer told me that it would cost too much money to get anything resolved anyway.”

Indeed, giving up was often the only option that made economic sense. Fighting forfeiture successfully almost always requires assistance and Philadelphians who hired attorneys spent a median of $3,500. Meanwhile, the median seizure amount was just $600.

Additional hardships come from missed work, lost transportation and similar disruptions. “It can cost you a lot,” one survey respondent said. “[It] cost me all of my tools, my job, a lot of heartache.”

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Missed investment opportunities also occur. Many cases involve small-business owners who lost cash intended for equipment purchases that could have generated potentially tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. Wisconsin musician Phil Parhamovich lost the money he had saved to buy a recording studio.

Like Salgado, Parhamovich eventually got his property back. He was lucky. But even winners are losers with civil forfeiture, which punishes the innocent along with the guilty.

Jennifer McDonald is the assistant director of activism special projects at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., and lead author of “Frustrating, Corrupt, Unfair: Civil Forfeiture in the Words of Its Victims.” Daryl James is an Institute for Justice writer.