Charles Clarke entered the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport last February eager to go back to his mother after a months-long visit with relatives. But instead of a quick, easy trip home to Orlando, Clarke lost his life savings — $11,000 in cash — to law enforcement officials who never even proved he committed a crime.
Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, said losing that $11,000 was “devastating.” He’s been forced to live with his mom, trumping his plans to move closer to school. He’s fallen back on other family for financial support. And he had to take out loans for school instead of paying for it up front — for which he’s still in debt. “It’s been a struggle for me,” Clarke, who’s now fighting in court to get his money back, said.
But law enforcement officials may have been working within the confines of the law when they took Clarke’s money. Under federal and state laws that allow what’s called “civil forfeiture,” law enforcement officers can seize someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime; they just need probable cause to believe the assets are being used as part of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit: either through state programs, or under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments.
So police can not only seize people’s property without proving involvement in a crime, but they have a financial incentive to do so.
It’s these laws that law enforcement officials cited in taking Clarke’s cash, and in seizing thousands of other people’s property across the country. But Clarke’s story shows just how flimsy the initial basis for taking someone’s money can be — starting with, simply, how his checked luggage smelled.