IJ Fights Back After Court Defangs Forfeiture Reform
Imagine winning your forfeiture case against the federal government, only to lose a third of your money to attorneys’ fees. It wouldn’t be fair, which is why Congress in 2000 enacted the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) to require that government pay the fees of property owners who “substantially prevail” in their forfeiture case against the feds. Now IJ is fighting to ensure that government officials can’t evade CAFRA’s vital protections.
We’re doing that through a case on behalf of Brian Moore Jr. In March 2021, Brian was waiting to board his flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles when Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents seized $8,500 from his luggage—money he planned to use to shoot a music video for his budding music career.
Brian could prove the cash was from the sale of a car his grandfather had left him in his will, and he found attorneys (not IJ) to represent him. They filed a motion to suppress DEA’s warrantless search of Brian’s carry-on bag and followed that up with a motion to secure the return of Brian’s cash. Just days before the hearings on those motions, the government threw in the towel and agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice—meaning the government could not refile the forfeiture case against Brian’s money.
Incredibly, the judge ruled that Brian had not “substantially prevailed” and was therefore not eligible for CAFRA’s fees provision. The judge reasoned that, because the government had quit, there was no ruling “on the merits” of Brian’s case. But there’s no way a property owner can prevail more than getting their case dismissed with prejudice and their money returned!
Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, IJ represents all of our clients free of charge. But most attorneys litigate cases like Brian’s on a “contingency fee” basis, where the client pays a portion of the judgment to their attorneys if they prevail. So even though Brian won everything he could have won, he still had to pay a third of his recovered money to his attorneys.
When the government loses a case, the government should have to pay. It’s only fair, and it’s exactly what CAFRA demands to ensure that property owners are made “whole” after a wrongful seizure. But if the district court’s decision stands, that statute will be rendered toothless.
IJ is taking over Brian’s case on appeal to make sure CAFRA has some bite. We’re asking a federal appeals court to enforce this important protection for Brian and to establish appellate precedent that ensures innocent property owners like him aren’t further victimized by having to bear the cost of their legal fees when the government loses its case.
Dan Alban is an IJ senior attorney and co-director of IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse.
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