As I reported last year, on January 10, 2017, police pulled over Zhimin Peng when he was speeding while driving through Boone County in central Missouri. Peng explained to police that he was on a road trip from Chicago to San Francisco with his friend, Ting Wei Huang. On inspecting the vehicle, police officers found $627,000 in cash in several duffle bags. Peng said his friend Lu Li had lent him the money to buy a house.
Once the cash was discovered, a K-9 unit arrived, and the dog detected narcotics on the bags. No illegal drugs were found during the traffic stop. The car was towed, and the cash seized. Peng was issued a ticket for driving 94 mph in a 70-mph zone; the ticket was later dismissed. Neither Peng nor Huang were charged with any crime.
Police attempted to seize the money using civil asset forfeiture, a legal process whereby law enforcement agencies may take possession of an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. In many states, a criminal conviction is not required for property to be seized. In Missouri, however, asset forfeiture is not allowed without an accompanying criminal conviction or guilty plea.
To get around this restriction, Missouri law enforcement partners with federal agencies using a procedure known as “equitable sharing.” This allows the state’s law enforcement agencies to circumvent local restrictions on forfeitures and carry them out without a criminal conviction or even criminal charges. Local law enforcement receives 80 percent of the proceeds of equitable sharing forfeitures with the rest being retained by the feds.
For forfeitures carried out using equitable sharing, prosecutors need only show that “a preponderance of the evidence” suggests the seized property was involved in a crime. This is a far lower bar than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases. In the case of Peng, police outlined circumstantial evidence to suggest the $627,000 was drug money.
Peng’s address in Chicago, for example, is only nine houses away from a residence which is known for shipping drug money to California from Chicago. Court filings suggest, too, that there were “highly unusual” bank transactions involving Peng, including wire transactions and deposits of $100,000. Peng also took three trips from Chicago to California in the three months from November 2016 through January 2017. He additionally took one trip to New York during this time.
No criminal charges have been filed against Li. She argued the seizure was a violation of her civil rights and fought to get the money back. The feds have now agreed to return about $418,000 of the money to her but plan on keeping the remaining $209,000.
When asked why criminal charges were not pursued and why the government is returning some of Li’s money, Don Ledford, spokesperson for U.S District Attorney for Western Missouri Tim Garrison, said he was unable to answer this question.
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.