On February 10, 2014, civil forfeiture claimed yet another victim. But now he’s fighting back.
El Willis hadn’t been charged with a crime. Nor was he carrying any drugs. But when police stopped his car last February, they didn’t need any evidence of criminal activity to take almost $20,000 in cash from him. Under civil forfeiture laws, police only need a mere suspicion of wrongdoing in order to seize private property. Meanwhile, no charge or conviction is required to keep it.
Willis was riding with his girlfriend, Shonta Wilson, when their rental car was stopped by police on Interstate 75 in Tennessee on February 10, 2014. Monroe County Sheriff’s Interdiction Officer Bobby Queen noticed that Wilson, who was driving at the time, changed lanes without using a turn signal. Queen pulled the car over and found out that Wilson’s license was suspended. She was arrested.
Officer Queen then patted down Willis for weapons when he found a locked money pouch tucked in Willis’ waistband. Inside was $18,480 in cash. Willis said he’s a music producer and was headed with that cash to Atlanta, Ga., where he was planning to make music deals.
Queen said he smelled marijuana and had a drug dog sniff the car and the pouch. The dog alerted but ultimately no drugs were found on Willis or in the car. Willis was never charged with a crime, yet police still seized his cash.
After performing two sets of ion swap tests for drug residue on the cash (the first set was “misplaced”), the second ion swap tested positive for trace amounts of cocaine. But the vast majority of dollar bills in the United States bear traces of cocaine. It’s such a well-known fact that Snopes.com even did a story on it.
Now Willis has filed a lawsuit in federal court to win his cash back. Unfortunately, he faces an uphill battle. According to the Institute for Justice’s report, “Policing for Profit,” under federal law, the government need only show by a “preponderance of the evidence” that property was used in connection with a crime. That’s far less evidence than the “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” standard used for criminal convictions.
Nor is Willis’ case an isolated incident. According to a recent exposé by The Washington Post, since 9/11, police nationwide have seized cash almost 62,000 times from drivers and other individuals who were never charged with a crime, under a federal forfeiture program known as “equitable sharing.” In just Tennessee, law enforcement departments have seized $26.5 million without ever filing charges. Equitable sharing has also been quite the cash cow, with Tennessee agencies spending over $37 million in equitable sharing funds since 2008. Meanwhile, NewsChannel 5, a Nashville TV news station, has spent years exposing “policing for profit” in the state. (One of their segments is embedded below.)
Civil forfeiture absolutely needs to be reformed. Last year, Sen. Rand Paul introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, which would have ensured that “government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process.” More recently, one Tennessee district attorney has already pledged that in his jurisdiction, police will stop seizing cash from traffic stops, unless it accompanies an arrest.
As Willis’ attorney, Phil Lomonaco, put it, “The laws do need to be changed because it used to be that robbers would jump from trees with their swords and guns and rob somebody. Now they drive up and down the road in patrol cars.”
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice