ARLINGTON, Va.—On January 23, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) returned $8,040 to a Rochester, New York, woman whose money was taken by law enforcement in October 2020, without ever being charged with a crime. Cristal Starling, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), is now seeking interest payments for the more than three years she was without the money, which she planned to invest in her mobile food cart business.
“I’m incredibly happy to have my money back, but I also deserve to be paid interest,” said Cristal. “The last three years without my hard-earned money have been incredibly difficudistlt for me and ruined my plans of expanding my food cart business. Who knows where I’d be right now if this never happened to me. Now, I would like to receive some justice.”
In October 2020, Rochester Police executed two different search warrants for homes they believed were related to Cristal’s then-boyfriend, whom they suspected of dealing drugs. The first, was a home owned by the boyfriend’s mother, where they found drugs. The second was Cristal’s apartment, where they found no drugs. Instead, they found Cristal, her grandnephew, her then-boyfriend, and the $8,040 she had saved.
Cristal’s ex was acquitted of all charges. Cristal was never arrested nor charged with anything, but police still seized her personal vehicle, her work vehicle, and the money. She eventually got the vehicles back, but the money was sent to the DEA for civil forfeiture, through a process known as the equitable sharing program. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take money or property it suspects is involved in a crime without ever charging, or even accusing, the owner of committing a crime.
After the DEA received the money, the agency sent Cristal a notice explaining how she could contest the forfeiture of her money. Because it would cost half of the money that was seized to hire a lawyer, Cristal attempted to navigate the convoluted system alone. She followed every step along the way and was in constant contact with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. But because she missed one single paperwork deadline, she was told her money had been permanently forfeited by the DEA.
“In America, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but our civil forfeiture system flips that basic principle on its head,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Sherman. “You shouldn’t need a team of lawyers proving your innocence to get back something that police took from you without any due process.”
In April 2022, Cristal teamed up with IJ to file an appeal with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking for her day in front of a judge to fight this forfeiture. In August 2023, the Court of Appeals ruled Cristal was entitled to her day in court, prompting the DEA to return Cristal’s money, rather than defend its actions.