Property or Freedom? Ninth Circuit Says You Must Choose - Civil Rights Law - U.S. Ninth Circuit
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Property or Freedom? Ninth Circuit Says You Must Choose

It seems that the U.S. government can prosecute money.

In a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, U.S. v. $133.420.00 in U.S. Currency, the San Francisco-based court ruled that Damon Louis, the currency’s co-defendant, did not have standing to challenge a civil forfeiture action for the sum, which was found in Louis’ car.

Officer Mace Craft stopped Louis in January 2009 for failure to use his turn signal. In response to questioning, Louis stated that there was nothing illegal in the car, and twice denied that there was a large amount of currency in the vehicle.

Officer Craft then led his drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle. The dog alerted, and Officer Craft told Louis that he had probable cause to search the car.

Officer Craft found three cardboard boxes in Louis’s trunk. Two contained decorative rocks, and the third contained a set of black throwing daggers and $133,420 in United States currency. No other contraband was found.

(There’s no further mention of the police dog, but we’ll still designate him as the latest FindLaw Top Dog — we love a dog that sniffs out money).

Officer Craft seized the money, which he suspected was the proceeds of illegal drug trafficking, and took Louis to the police station. At the station, Louis told the officers that he knew the currency was in the trunk of his car, but would neither claim nor disclaim the money as his. The officers released Louis and returned his vehicle.

Money that is used, or intended to be used, to buy or sell illegal drugs is subject to forfeiture. Once such money has been seized, it is “deemed to be in the custody of the Attorney General who may seek either criminal forfeiture or civil forfeiture. In the present case of Louis and the cash, the Attorney General initiated a civil forfeiture to keep the cash.

Louis contested the forfeiture action, which prompted interrogatories about Louis’ relationship to the money, and the currency’s relationship to drug trafficking.

Louis didn’t answer, claiming that the questions violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, but he offered, “Without waiving said objections, my interest in the defendant property is as the owner and possessor of said property.” The district court struck that response, and, finding that unexplained physical possession money was insufficient to establish standing in a civil forfeiture claim, struck Louis’ claim to the money.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

Do you agree? Absent self-incrimination, the government has no proof that Louis’ relatively “large amount” of cash is related to drug trafficking. Should the government be allowed to pit property rights against Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and seize Louis’ money through civil forfeiture?

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