After fighting the federal government for more than 15 months, El Willis will get back his seized cash. Like many others who have faced civil forfeiture, the government never charged Willis with a crime.
In late May, federal prosecutors agreed to return all of his cash—$18,480. But as part of the settlement agreement, Willis will still be on the hook for paying his attorney.
Police first seized the cash during a traffic stop in February 2014. An interdiction officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office pulled his girlfriend, Shonta Wilson, and Willis over as they were driving through Tennessee on Interstate 75. Officer Bobby Queen stopped Wilson after noticing she changed lanes without her turn signal.
Officer Queen patted down Willis for weapons and came across a money pouch he was carrying under his shirt. Inside was almost $20,000. After claiming he smelled marijuana, the officer had a drug dog sniff the car. Though the dog alerted, police never found any drugs. Nor was Willis charged as a result of the stop. In fact, only Wilson was reprimanded, and for driving with a suspended license.
“The money that was taken was our life’s savings. It was not drug money,” Willis stated in an affidavit in April. “Now, without any extra money, we are living paycheck to paycheck,” he added.
Willis is not alone. In just Tennessee, local and state law enforcement agencies made over 750 cash seizures worth $26.5 million since 9/11. All of these seizures were executed without police issuing warrants or filing criminal charges, according to an in-depth series by The Washington Post. Little wonder the Institute for Justice gave the Volunteer State a D for having “broad civil forfeiture laws that fail to protect the rights of property owners.”
Meanwhile, Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 has regularly investigated civil forfeiture in Tennessee, and their coverage even earned a spot on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (One of their segments is below.)