IJ Fights Back Against Rigged Forfeiture Rules
For years, IJ has led the fight against civil forfeiture. But our latest case shows what civil forfeiture looks like when IJ isn’t involved and how unfair procedural rules can deprive innocent people of their hard-earned money. Now we are working to change those rules, to give forfeiture victims a fighting chance even when they don’t initially have IJ on their side.
Those victims include Cristal Starling, a resident of Rochester, New York, who has cared for her 6-year-old grandnephew since he was a baby. Her dreams of turning her mobile food cart business into a food truck were dashed when police seized $8,040 she was going to spend on used equipment. Police seized the money when they raided her apartment to arrest her now-ex-boyfriend on suspicion of dealing drugs.
Nothing illegal was found in Cristal’s apartment. She was never arrested, charged, or convicted—and her ex-boyfriend was acquitted of all charges by a Rochester jury. But none of this mattered to Rochester Police, who had turned Cristal’s cash over to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be forfeited.
Cristal fought the forfeiture and made it deeper into the system than most people, and the DEA offered to give her half her money back to settle the case. But Cristal rejected the offer and sought the return of all her money.
Unfortunately, Cristal found herself caught in one of the system’s many pitfalls. After Cristal filed a claim to her money in the administrative system, the forfeiture was moved into the courts. The move meant that Cristal needed to file a second claim, but she—acting without a lawyer—didn’t know that and missed the deadline to file.
In another type of court proceeding, Cristal would have been excused for missing the deadline and her case would have moved forward normally. But in civil forfeiture, deadlines and procedural rules are harshly applied. So even after Cristal filed in court and made it plain she wanted to fight the forfeiture, the district court entered judgment against her based only on the missed deadline and without considering the merits of her claim.
Sadly, this is typical of civil forfeiture. IJ’s comprehensive Policing for Profit report shows that the vast majority of victims lose their property without a court ever hearing their case. This is because the amount seized is usually too small to make it financially feasible to hire an attorney, and victims then can’t make it through the maze of forfeiture procedures alone. Moreover, because civil forfeiture is outside the criminal justice system, owners do not have a right to a lawyer if they can’t afford one.
When the district court finally forfeited Cristal’s money, she thought her case was over. But—because she fought so hard and got so far—the district court had to issue a written opinion that was docketed, allowing IJ to find Cristal and offer to carry on the fight. Now Cristal, represented by IJ, is appealing to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to ask it to reverse the lower court’s judgment and send her case back so she can finally get her day in court. The Constitution—and due process—demands nothing less.
Seth Young is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow.
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