NEW YORK—Today, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Rochester woman is entitled to make her case in front of a judge nearly three years after Rochester Police took more than $8,000 from her without charging her with a crime.
Cristal Starling previously lost her $8,000 when—representing herself in her civil forfeiture case—she missed one of several deadlines to contest the forfeiture. Cristal appealed, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), and the 2nd Circuit held that Cristal should not lose her money forever because of a single missed deadline.
“Today’s decision will have important consequences for civil forfeiture victims who are trying to navigate complicated forfeiture procedures, often without help from a lawyer,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “If the government wants to take your money, they should have to prove you did something wrong—not trip you up with legal procedures.”
In October 2020, local police raided Cristal’s apartment because they suspected her then-boyfriend of dealing drugs. Her boyfriend was acquitted by a jury, and Cristal was never suspected of any wrongdoing. Still, police took $8,040—which she was planning to use to buy a food truck—from her, through a process called civil forfeiture. They then transferred the money to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, where it’s been ever since.
Cristal could not afford to hire a lawyer to help her navigate the forfeiture process, so, for years, she tried to do it by herself. She was able to get part way through the process, but, in February 2022, a district court judge held that the property was lost forever because of a single missed deadline. That’s why in April 2022, Cristal teamed up with IJ to file an appeal to get her day in court.
“I’m excited and looking forward to fighting this,” said Cristal. “And I’m happy that I was able to push through and persevere through all these filings, all this paper, and all these court proceedings. Nobody should have to fight this hard just to keep what’s theirs.”
On appeal, the government had argued that courts should hold forfeiture victims to a higher standard than applies in other types of cases and should be less willing to forgive missed deadlines in forfeiture cases. The 2nd Circuit rejected that argument as “defective.”
The decision states that, if anything, “civil forfeiture procedure magnifies the importance of deciding such cases on the merits rather than by default.” The court explains that, under the civil forfeiture laws, “lax notice requirements allow the government to start the clock towards default judgment with perfunctory measures,” and the court observes that “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 recognized what has always been abundantly clear about civil forfeiture: allowing police to pocket the money they take from people who have never been charged with a crime encourages police to take more money from innocent people,” said IJ Attorney Seth Young.
Cristal’s case will now go back to the lower court where she can finally make her case in front of a judge.
“Cristal is not alone in having her due process rights stripped by the unjust civil forfeiture process,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock. “It’s time to end civil forfeiture nationwide.”