Victory! Courthouse Doors Reopened for Forfeiture Victims

Paul Sherman
Paul Sherman  ·  September 18, 2023

When Rochester, New York, police raided Cristal Starling’s apartment and seized more than $8,000 for civil forfeiture, she believed her dreams of opening a food truck were over. Her hopes plummeted further when a federal judge held that a deadline Cristal missed while challenging that forfeiture without the help of a lawyer meant she had lost her money forever. But now, thanks to an IJ victory, Cristal will finally get her day in court.

Cristal’s problems began in October 2020, when Rochester police raided her apartment on the suspicion that her then-boyfriend was dealing drugs. Police found no drugs, but they did find Cristal’s savings of $8,040. Police seized the money, later transferring it to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration through a process known as “equitable sharing”—in which federal agencies take over forfeitures carried out by state officials, often circumventing state protections for property owners in the process.

Cristal herself was never implicated in any wrongdoing, and her former boyfriend was eventually acquitted of all charges. So Cristal naturally thought that she should be able to get her money back. With no legal help, Cristal sent a letter contesting the forfeiture. But the government argued she had missed a key deadline. When Cristal asked the federal district judge to forgive the oversight, he refused, holding that she had lost her money forever.

Unfortunately, Cristal’s story illustrates an all-too-common plight: The legal fees necessary to contest a forfeiture can quickly exceed the value of the cash or other property at stake. Forced to navigate the courts on their own, forfeiture victims often miss deadlines or fall into other procedural traps that leave them with no recourse except to surrender potentially life-changing sums of money to the government.

Thankfully, IJ learned of Cristal’s story and took over her case. We appealed the ruling to the 2nd Circuit, which reversed the lower court’s decision. As a result, nearly three years after her money was seized, Cristal will finally get to fight for her savings in court.

The appellate court’s ruling is notable not only for its result but also for the understanding the court showed of how civil forfeiture works in the real world. As the court recognized, under existing law, “lax notice requirements allow the government to start the clock towards default judgment with perfunctory measures,” while “a huge number of civil forfeiture cases are fought by claimants acting pro se” (representing themselves). Further, “All this is driven by incentive: The authorities can pocket what they can seize by forfeit.”

The court’s ruling reviving Cristal’s case isn’t just a victory for her—it paves the way for other victims of civil forfeiture to contest the seizure of their belongings without being ensnared in procedural pitfalls. And IJ will be there to litigate those challenges until the injustice of civil forfeiture is ended nationwide.

Paul Sherman is an IJ senior attorney.

Also in this issue

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.