An unfortunate mixup on an Amtrak train led to the bizarre spectacle of the federal government of the United States filing a lawsuit against “a pile of cash”—specifically, $17,900 that federal agents decided to seize. This bizarre maneuver is the usual mechanism by which law enforcement seizes property from people on the suspicion that it was somehow involved in a crime and then tries to permanently keep the property without even charging, let alone convicting, anybody for a crime.
The circumstances of this particular lawsuit began when an Amtrak passenger mistakenly grabbed a bag containing $17,900 that purportedly belonged to two other passengers, Joyce Copeland and Angela Rodriguez. When the passenger discovered the mistake and turned the bag over to Amtrak police, a drug dog allegedly “alerted” officers to the presence of drugs that never materialized. Officers subsequently decided to keep the cash, over its owners’ objections, on the accusation that it was somehow involved in drug trafficking, even though nothing drug-related was ever found.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit handed the women in the Amtrak case their first critical victory. A district court had accepted the government’s argument that it was “implausible” the women would have travelled with the cash in question without any connection to drug trafficking. But the more engaged D.C. Circuit disagreed, ruling that Copeland and Rodriguez had sufficiently established grounds to claim the money and defend their property rights before a jury.
This initial victory doesn’t mean Copeland and Rodriguez will get their money back yet.
Instead, the appeals court ruling allows them to continue fighting for the return of their property in district court, rather than allow the government to take by default money it has no right to keep.
The ruling is also the latest in a growing trend of courts regarding civil forfeiture with greater skepticism. Back in March, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas cited the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) Policing for Profit report as part of a withering criticism of civil forfeiture:
“[B]ecause the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture… This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”
IJ has also successfully defended innocent victims of civil forfeiture in state and federal courts across the country—including in Connecticut, Oklahoma, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Massachusetts. Nationwide, the abusive practice has drawn furious criticism from such diverse figures as John Oliver, 225 different editorial boards, and both the Democratic and Republican party platforms. Nearly half the states in the country and Washington, D.C. have tightened their forfeiture laws in recent years, and two—New Mexico and Nebraska—have abolished civil forfeiture entirely, replacing it with criminal forfeiture. Further legislative efforts are currently pending in at leas