Civil asset forfeiture is a law that allows authorities to seize property—cars, electronics, cash, etc.—that is believed to be connected to a crime.
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.
Between 2016 and 2017, police officers in Phelps County, Missouri seized over $2.5 million during traffic stops along a 20-mile stretch of I-44. Law enforcement did not file any criminal charges for those seizures.
The property was taken using a legal procedure known as civil asset forfeiture. This controversial procedure allows law enforcement to seize an individual’s property if said property is suspected of being involved in a crime.
In criminal procedures, proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” is required to gain a conviction. As civil asset forfeiture is a civil and not a criminal process, the standard of proof required to permanently take property is usually lower. In Missouri, all that is required is “a preponderance of the evidence.”
In the early hours of January 10, 2017, Zhimin Peng of Chicago was traveling through Boone County, Missouri when he was pulled over by Deputy Patrick Richardson. Peng had been driving his rental car at 94 mph. Together with Peng in the car was Ting Wei Huang. They told Richardson that they were on a short break from college and were traveling from Chicago to San Francisco.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper Matt Halford soon joined Richardson. Halford obtained permission to search Huang’s possessions. When Halford opened a bag in the trunk, he saw it contained a large amount of cash. Another officer, Kevin Purdy of the Columbia Police Department arrived with his drug dog, Duncan; the dog alerted officers to the odor of narcotics in several bags in the trunk. The bags contained nearly $627,000 in cash.
On paper, Missouri’s civil asset forfeiture laws are better than most. State law requires all proceeds from property and cash seizures be used to fund public schools in the state. However, law enforcement is using a loophole to keep the vast majority of the proceeds for themselves.
Since 2015, Missouri law enforcement seized property and cash valued at $19 million. Of that total, less than 2 percent—only $340,000—found its way to schools.