Mooresville Tribune reports of a man named Jermaine Sanders charged with a misdemeanor offense for possession of drugs after police found a half-ounce of marijuana in his car during a search. The man was reportedly staying at a hotel when the search was conducted. Along with the drugs, the police also seized money amounting to $16,761 that they found in the car.
The owner sued to get the money back, insisting that it had nothing to do with the drugs they found. Iredell County District Court Judge Christine Underwood sided with the owner and ruled that the money be given back to him. Law enforcers forwarded the cash they seized to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) a day before the judge issued a verdict. Officials claimed that they could not give the cash back to the owner because it was already under the jurisdiction of CBP.
Several months passed, but officials did not comply with the order to return the money. Last February 10, the case was heard by Judge Underwood again and she upheld her earlier verdict, holding the city in contempt for not following her last order. She threatened the officials with jail time, stating that she would hold the officials accountable for disobeying her ruling and keeping Sanders from his rightful property.
It’s a rare occurrence for a judge to issue a verdict benefiting the owners in cases of civil asset forfeiture. In North Carolina, however, the laws pertaining to state seizure of property are some of the strictest in the whole country. The Institute for Justice rates the state a B+ in its “Policing for Profit” series of surveys. Strict statutes are in place to forfeit assets. Conviction of a crime is required as the standard of proof for property seizure. The funds generated from or seized by law enforcement agencies go directly to state-funded schools to discourage officials from forfeiting property for personal gain.
Even though the state’s laws on asset forfeiture aim to give a fair chance for the owners, law enforcement agencies still found a way to indirectly benefit from the seizure of property. The loophole comes in the form of the Department of Justice’s “equitable sharing program.” The program allows law enforcement officials to send property they seize to the federal government as part of the investigation. In most cases, however, the federal agencies take a share of the property seized before returning it to the local town officials. Law enforcement cannot be held accountable after the funds or forfeited assets are returned to them by way of the equitable sharing program because they already followed the protocol.
This was the case for Mr. Sanders, who, despite Judge Underwood ruling in his favor, still finds himself at a disadvantage in his civil asset forfeiture dilemma. The town’s officials surrendered his money to the CBP and in time, a portion of it will trickle back to them. The case is not over yet because the city of Mooresville sent a plea to the Court of Appeals to have the case reviewed.
Despite North Carolina’s laws preventing law enforcement agencies from gaining incentive from civil asset forfeitures, about $293 million revenue was still made by the state’s different agencies from seizing assets in the last 19 years, according to the Institute for Justice. The revenue was made not from state seizures, but partnerships between state law enforcers and the federal agencies under the equitable sharing program. This proves that there is still more that can be done in terms of civil asset forfeiture in the state.
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