In August 2017, $13,740 was stolen from a man in a gas station in Ohio. Although the culprit was caught, the Portage County Drug Task Force held onto the victim’s money, arguing it was subject to civil asset forfeiture. Last Friday, Judge Becky Doherty ordered the money finally be returned to the victim.
Civil asset forfeiture is the process where law enforcement can seize money or property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. In most states, law enforcement can seize property even if its owner has not been charged with a crime. Since proceeds from forfeiture are often used by law enforcement, this has led to accusations of “policing for profit” from groups such as the libertarian Institute for Justice.
In January 2017, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into a law a bill which required that, in cases where property is valued below $15,000, the property’s owner must be convicted in a criminal court before it can be subject to civil asset forfeiture.
The legislation also stipulated that most property under $100,000 cannot be transferred to federal agencies. This essentially ended the process known as “equitable sharing,” which allowed local law enforcement to use federal rather than state law to forfeit property and receive up to 80% of the proceeds.
In the case in question, a California man was traveling to a casino in August 2017. He stopped at a Speedway gas station in Rootstown, but when he left, he forgot to take his bag with him. The bag contained $13,740 in $20 notes. Realizing he had lost his bag, the man called the gas station to see if it had been found. The clerk said he had not seen it.
Reviewing video surveillance footage the next day, the gas station’s manager saw the man leaving the bag on the counter. The footage also showed the clerk, Robert A. McClish, then picking up the bag and taking it into the bathroom. McClish later left the bathroom without the bag.
Confronted by the police, McClish admitted he had taken the bag and showed deputies where he had concealed the remaining unspent cash. He has been charged with fourth-degree felony grand theft and is currently free on bond until his trial in June.
For nine months, Portage County law enforcement held onto the victim’s money. Despite the changes to Ohio’s laws, it seems law enforcement had expected the money to be subject to civil asset forfeiture, either at the local level or at a federal level using “equitable sharing.”
When asked about the case, Major Larry Limbert, commander of the Portage County Drug Task Force, said he did not recall the details. “I’m not sure if we kept it or if the DEA was doing a civil forfeiture [case] on it. … Usually, we’d turn it over to the DEA.”
In court last Friday, Assistant Portage County Prosecutor Steve Michniak asked for the victim’s money to be returned. When Michniak had earlier inquired about where the victim’s money was being held, he had been told local law enforcement “still believe it’s subject to federal forfeiture.”
Judge Doherty asked for the grounds on which law enforcement had based this belief. Michniak replied that he could find none. “Unless they’re armed with a federal court order,” he said in court, “I would ask the court to return the money to the victim.”
Doherty ordered that the money be handed to the Clerk of Courts Office within two weeks. From here, the victim will be sent a check for the amount seized.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.
Portage County Courthouse image by Jon Ridinger.