A recent case of roadside civil asset forfeiture put $346,000 in cash at stake. On November 17 of last year, federal officials pulled over a vehicle for an alleged moving violation. According to law enforcement records, the vehicle was a rental car cruising along in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
The driver was a woman who allegedly didn’t have a driver’s license. When asked, she allegedly showed the officers her Kuwaiti passport and an identification card that was not in English. The officer who performed the stop confronted two passengers in the vehicle and asked where they were headed. The police report indicates that the passengers seemed nervous and that their stories didn’t match.
The officer then reportedly asked to search the vehicle, but one of the passengers did not consent. Nevertheless, records indicate that the officer proceeded to use a police dog to sniff around the car. The dog showed signs of detecting narcotics, and the officer used this as justification to search the vehicle, reports say.
The officer was able to seize around $345,950 in cash contained in a backpack and different plastic bags. He also confiscated brass knuckles and tasers, according to the report. There were reportedly no narcotics present.
The Harrisburg County Attorney’s Office has filed a request for the forfeiture of the cash from the case. Prosecutors claim the seized money was related to a drug-dealing case even though no drugs were seized from the vehicle. They further stated that the seized cash tested positive for narcotics.
Conjectures like these made by local and federal authorities are not uncommon. Many civil asset forfeiture cases start from something as simple as a civilian being pulled over for an alleged violation. Once the officers discover you have a huge amount of cash in your vehicle, they will most likely attempt to forfeit it in connection to an alleged crime.
Pennsylvania has what many critics have judged to be poor civil asset forfeiture laws. Authorities only need to have a preponderance of evidence, or essentially a hunch that the seized property is connected to a crime, in order to move forward with a seizure. Law enforcement agencies also keep 100% of the revenue generated from forfeiting property, giving them an incentive to keep the practice of civil asset forfeiture going.
Property owners have to prove their innocence in court or prove that they were not aware of the crimes their assets were allegedly involved in. From a property owner’s perspective, there is very little to gain from challenging a forfeiture. The lack of mandated legal representation in forfeiture cases only adds to their already hefty burden.
Pennsylvania has yet to make changes to its civil asset forfeiture laws. The state ranks as one of the worst in the country in terms of asset forfeitures, according to the nonprofit organization Institute for Justice.
The Lebanon County roadside asset seizure does not have a happy ending. One of the passengers in the vehicle was allegedly from Brooklyn; he awaits charges for alleged drug crimes in Lebanon County, sources indicate.
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