In 2016, Ambioris Cruz was in a Nissan Murano SUV together with Jose Veloz in Reading, Pennsylvania. With them in the car were $5,000 in cash and several bags of drugs. They were waiting for one of their associates to show. They were waiting to make a drug deal.
What Cruz and Veloz didn’t know was that the police had turned their associate against them. Law enforcement officers were observing from a distance. When the time was right, the police rushed in. They arrested the pair and seized the SUV, cash, and drugs.
It seemed like a simple case. The bad guys were caught and their assets seized. The only problem? The Nissan belonged to Daisilee Cruz, Ambioris’ estranged wife. She was out of town at the time of the seizure and was not involved in the crime.
Law enforcement was able to take the drugs, money, and car using civil asset forfeiture, a legal process whereby police can take property if said property is believed to have been involved in a crime. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, no criminal conviction is needed for property to be taken. It is relatively easy for police to seize property. Unlike in a criminal case where the evidence must show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty, in civil asset forfeiture, only “a preponderance of the evidence” is required for assets to be taken.
Since they keep 100 percent of the proceeds of forfeiture, law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania have an incentive to seize property. This is something Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams sees as a point of pride. “We’re looking for assets more so than we ever did before. This is bad guys’ money that we’re taking to enable us to arrest more bad guys,” he said. “You’re damn right we’re going to take it.”
To Adams, the proceeds of civil forfeitures are essential to be able to effectively run law enforcement agencies in his district. The police department in Reading, the county seat of Berks County, is understaffed and lacks equipment, says Adams. He makes sure a portion of the proceeds from forfeitures is used to buy equipment and pay for investigations in the city. “Frankly, I would never have been able to obtain that equipment if I had to rely on a municipal budget, or a county budget, or a state budget,” he said.
According to Louis Rulli, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “Counties pressed for funds are going to increase civil forfeiture. DAs know that this is a very profitable funding stream.” Rulli also warns that once law enforcement agencies start using forfeitures to fund their departments, suddenly everything starts to look like drug money.
By 2019, Daisilee Cruz had given up hope of getting her car back. Without her car, she was having trouble taking her kids to school, but the car had been sitting in a police lot since it was taken in 2016. When pressed about the case recently, Adams said he had decided “despite the evidence” to return the vehicle to Daisilee. Although he did not detail any evidence against Daisilee, he did later explain the car wasn’t valuable enough to forfeit.
“Not valuable to whom?” asked Andres Jalon, Daisilee’s lawyer. “The DA is looking at the car from a monetary standpoint because they want to make money.” To Daisilee, explained Jalon, the car was absolutely valuable, not least because she will be now able to use it to safely get her children to and from school.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
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