On June 9, Dimitrios Patlias was driving through West Virginia on his way to Jefferson County’s Hollywood Casino. Traveling with him was his wife, Tonya Smith, who at the time was eight months pregnant. They were pulled over by a highway patrol officer who said Dimitrios had failed to stay in his lane.
The officer accused them of smuggling cigarettes or even of having drugs in the car. When he found cash worth $10,478 in the vehicle together with 78 rewards and gift cards, the officer accused them of gift card fraud. However, the officer found no evidence of wrongdoing. He issued Dimitrios a warning and let them go. Despite this, the officer took their cash, gift cards, and Dimitrios’ phone. Dimitrios and Tonya returned home to Egg Harbor, New Jersey with only $2. They had not been charged with any crime.
The officer was able to seize Dimitrios and Tonya’s property using a procedure known as civil asset forfeiture. This is where law enforcement officials are able to seize property or money they believe to have been involved in a crime. In most states, criminal charges do not need to be filed, and no criminal conviction is necessary.
Unlike in criminal cases, law enforcement often does not need hard evidence to seize property using civil asset forfeiture. Only a suspicion or a “preponderance of the evidence” is required. The burden of proof usually lies with the defendant—i.e., the property owner—and not, as is normal in criminal cases, with the prosecution.
When property owners attempt to fight their cases, they quickly learn that, as this is a civil and not a criminal matter, they are not entitled to a court-appointed defender. Instead, they have to represent themselves or hire a lawyer—something which may be prohibitively expensive.
In West Virginia, if the property owner fails to respond to the prosecution’s motion to forfeit within 30 days, the property is automatically forfeited to the state. When property is forfeited, 100 percent of the profits go to law enforcement agencies. Critics of civil asset forfeiture argue that, because of this, the police are incentivized to seize property.
Tonya is upset at the way she and her husband were treated. “It was a disgusting way of being treated. We work hard for our money,” she said. Now that she is a mother, Tonya says she is uncertain how to raise her son to respect the police while she herself is afraid of them.
The West Virginia branch of the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests to law enforcement agencies to learn more about the use of civil asset forfeiture across the state. Examining the documents, it became clear there is little oversight on the process. Recordkeeping is inconsistent, and there is no unified tracking system for the whole state. The majority counties have no written policy for the use of civil forfeiture, nor do they provide officers with training.
Tonya confirms that an officer has now returned their property. However, its status remains unclear, and it may still be forfeited. “A complaint was made by Mr. Patlias, and an active IA investigation is ongoing,” said a state police spokesman.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
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