The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that three Fresno police officers accused of stealing more than $225,000 while executing a search warrant are entitled to “qualified immunity” and therefore can’t be sued.
The judges panel acknowledged that the officers should have recognized the alleged theft was morally wrong, but it concluded that they didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment.
The Fresno Police Department executed a search warrant in 2013 and raided Brittan Ashjian and Micah Jessop, who were suspected of running illegal gambling machines. Neither man was criminally charged.
Once the officers completed the search, they reportedly provided Jessop and Ashjan with an inventory report that said they had seized $50,000. Jessop and Ashjian claim the officers had actually seized $151,000 in cash and $125,000 in rare coins.
They contend that the officers pocketed the difference above what was reported on the inventory sheet. The difference between the funds reported and the total amount they actually took is allegedly just over $226,000.
Jessop and Ashjian sued the Fresno Police Department, arguing that the alleged theft violated their Fourth Amendment rights, which protects citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
However, despite these alleged facts, the Ninth Circuit still granted qualified immunity because “there was no clearly established law holding that officers violate the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment when they steal property seized pursuant to a warrant.” The court declined to decide if the alleged theft by the officers actually violated Ashjian and Jessop’s rights.
The Fresno case has many parallels to civil forfeiture, which lets police departments in the U.S. seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and other forms of valuable property, often without even filing charges against the property owner.
Civil asset forfeiture laws were originally intended as a way to fight drug trafficking, but the laws have now become a lucrative way for law enforcement agencies to earn revenue. Between 1989 and 2010, law enforcement in the U.S. seized an estimated $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture cases.
Granting qualified immunity in the Fresno case sets a damaging precedent for the Ninth Circuit, which governs Arizona, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
Several civil liberties organizations, including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Institute for Justice, the Reason Foundation have reportedly filed an amicus brief urging the panel to rehear the case.
The amicus calls the ruling “wrong, both under existing case law and as a matter of common sense,” and argues that the Ninth Circuit’s decision “allows police officers to steal from suspects with impunity, and without any concern that might be subject to civil liability.”
The brief connects the allegations to civil forfeiture. However, in a typical civil asset forfeiture case, a property owner may usually be able to recover all or some of their assets. Many people routinely lose property to asset forfeiture because they are unaware of their rights.
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.