Prepare to be outraged. If you've ever traveled with a large sum of money, police can legally confiscate it. It's a burgeoning trend known as "policing for profit," and law enforcement agencies are using it to bolster their budgets.
George Reby, a New Jersey-based insurance adjuster was pulled over for speeding while driving through Putnam County, Tenn. several months ago. The officer who pinched him asked him if he had any money, asked to search the car, and took more than $20,000 in cash from Reby.
Reby didn't see his money for four months, but that's because he was proactive. In many cases, law enforcement agencies keep confiscated property indefinitely, even if the person they took it from was not guilty of any crime. Property seizures — known officially as civil asset forfeitures — aren't limited to cash. Cars and other property can be taken, too, with money often going directly into the seizing agency's budget. There are documented cases of law enforcement using funds inappropriately, ala Boss Hogg.
How are they able to do this? Simple: large sums of money mean drug trafficking. Obviously. I mean who would carry $6,000 in a briefcase under the seat unless they were going to use it to buy a bunch of coke?
Well, me for starters. I have a distinct memory of selling my '68 Mustang for $5,800. The buyer drove from Minnesota to Virginia Beach in a beat up truck, laden with c-notes. After the sale, I drove to my local bank to deposit the money, dropping more than half of it on the ground as I got out of my truck. I was so scared that the wind would kick up and blow it all away as I scrambled to get every last bill. Who knew that what I really had to fear was a cop who could say I might have used it for drug trafficking.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law, but you won't necessarily be able to defend yourself. In Tennessee, George Reby found out that civil asset seizure hearings are, by statute, ex parte, meaning that a judge will review the officer's affidavit, but the person accused of being a drug trafficker is not allowed to weigh in with his or her side of the story. It sounds suspiciously like Charles Darnay's third trial in A Tale of Two Cities — the court already knows what it wants.
Larry Bates, the officer who took Reby's money, wrote in his affidavit that he found the money wrapped in small bundles bound with rubber bands, a "common trend for someone who is in the drug trade." He also said that Reby was acting suspiciously, and that a computer background check showed that Reby had been arrested for possession of cocaine 20 years ago (although he was not convicted). These "clues" were what led our Tennessean Sherlock Holmes to the conclusion that Reby must be involved in some kind of drug operation.
But here's the kicker. NewsChannel5 Investigates has Bates on camera admitting that Reby had told him he was using the money to buy a car. He had even showed the officer eBay searches saved on his computer to prove it. When asked why he did not include this information in his affidavit, Bates looked at the ground like a child just caught stealing cookies, and muttered, "I don't know."
Policing for profit is news to me, but it's not isolated to the Volunteer State. It happens all over America, and has attracted the attention of civil liberties law firms American Civil Liberties Union and Institute for Justice. IJ released a report in 2010 entitled Policing for Profit. It is a chilling collection of civil seizure research and horror stories from around the country.
The report also includes a section grading states on the level of money snatching audacity some employ. Nearly 30 states received a D or D-, and Tennessee, although among the worst, was out-thieved by Georgia, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. And if you though it was cool to drive through liberal Massachusetts or California with a big wad of cash in your car, think again. IJ gave both states Ds.
Reby finally did get his money back, but only after signing away his Constitutional right to sue. He also had to come back to Putnam County to get his check, sans apology from a law enforcement agency that was unable to prove that he was a drug trafficker. It was a pretty clear case of guilty before proven innocent.
The moral of this story could be "Don't carry large, drug dealer-looking sums of cash in your car," but where would that leave us? That only adds to the unreasonable amount of power many law enforcement agencies have in the post-9/11 era.