Mandrel Stuart used to own the Smoking Roosters, a barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va. But one night in August 2012, police pulled him over and seized $17,550, without even bothering to charge Stuart with a crime. Unable to pay his bills and rent, Stuart had to close down his small business.
On the night of the seizure, Stuart and his girlfriend were headed to Washington, D.C. for a date and to buy supplies for his restaurant, when Fairfax County Officer Kevin Palizzi pulled them over on I-66. Palizzi stopped Stuart initially for having tinted windows. During the stop, Palizzi saw the movie Flashdance was also playing in Stuart’s car, which led to a $20 infraction.
A K-9 unit arrived and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs in Stuart’s car. Police then searched the car and found $17,550 in cash. A more thorough investigation of the car uncovered a miniscule amount of marijuana: just 0.01 gram. Police later gave Stuart a scrap of paper as a receipt. He was never charged with any crime.
Determined to get his money back, Stuart hired an attorney. But he faced an uphill battle. According to the Institute for Justice’s report, “Policing for Profit,” under Virginia law, owners in civil forfeiture cases have to prove their innocence in court to keep their property. This reverse burden of proof is surprisingly common in the United States: In only six states is the government required to prove guilt for all civil forfeiture proceedings, as is the norm for criminal cases.
At one point, prosecutors offered to settle and return half of Stuart’s cash. He refused. “I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart told The Washington Post. “Why should I give them my money?”
Instead, Stuart took the government to court and demanded a jury trial. It took the jury just 35 minutes to rule in his favor. Stuart won back his cash and the government had to pay his attorney’s fees as well—nearly $12,000. From the initial traffic stop to his victory in court, Stuart had to struggle against the government for 14 months.
Even though he won in court (which is no small feat in civil forfeiture cases), Stuart still lost his restaurant. Without his cash, he couldn’t pay the rent or bills and had to shut down Smoking Roosters just a few months after the seizure.
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice