The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously ruled on Thursday to overturn a lower court decision that had forfeited $271,080 in cash to the federal government, even though the owners were never criminally charged. The cash in question was owned by two brothers, Pedro and Abraham Cruz-Hernandez, who said that the money represented their savings.
One night, Chicago police responded to a home invasion at the house where the brothers lived with six other people. When the officers arrived, they found “a handgun, a digital scale, and a small amount of marijuana in a baggie.”
Outside, a police drug dog alerted to Pedro’s van. Officers obtained a search warrant and, once inside the vehicle, found a safe containing the cash. Police also found “two pages of handwritten notes” which they took for a “drug ledger”; the brothers instead said that the “handwritten notes relate to money sent to Mexico to build a home there.”
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Although police never found any drugs either in the van or the safe, the government was convinced that the cash was either the “proceeds of, or had been used or was intended to be used to facilitate, drug trafficking.” To prevail under federal civil forfeiture laws, prosecutors need only show a connection between a seized property and alleged criminal conduct by a “preponderance of the evidence.” That standard of proof is far lower than the “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” standard used to secure criminal convictions. Thanks to this lower standard, a district court ruled in favor of the government, granting summary judgement. The brothers appealed.
In a highly engaged ruling, Judge Diane Wood blasted the government’s case to forfeit the cash, ruling that “the government has presented virtually no evidence that the brothers are involved in drug trafficking:”
“There was nothing to indicate past or current drug dealing by the brothers or anyone else living with them in the house, nor was there any suggestion that either brother used the bedroom where the apparent drug paraphernalia was found. Though drug dogs had alerted to the safe and currency, the government did not submit to the court any evidence of the dogs’ training, methodology, or field performance.”
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Instead, Wood noted that “there is evidence in the record that supports the brothers’ testimony that they earned the money legally:”
“They documented income since 2000 that between them totaled just over $680,000. After subtracting the money found in the safe and all other expenses described in their depositions and other records, the brothers had approximately $320,214—roughly $1,026 each per month—left to cover living expenses. The government pointed to no evidence suggesting that any of the brothers’ evidence of income is fabricated or that they have lavish spending habits. Because the brothers realistically could have saved the $271,080 at issue, there is a genuine dispute of fact that precludes summary judgment for the government.”
Based on those findings, the Seventh Circuit vacated the lower court’s forfeiture judgement, and remanded for further proceedings, meaning the government will only be able to forfeit the cash if it can persuade a jury that the brothers are engaged in drug trafficking.
Unfortunately, what happened to the Cruz-Hernandez brothers is not uncommon. Since 9/11, Chicago police have made 634 cash seizures without filing criminal charges. Statewide, Illinois law enforcement agencies collected more than $186 million in federal forfeiture funds, between 2000 and 2013, according to a report by the Institute for Justice.
Hat tip to IJ’s Short Circuit newsletter.