ROCHESTER, N.Y.—In October 2020, police seized $8,040 from Cristal Starling without charging her with a crime. When Cristal attempted to fight against the civil forfeiture of the money – which she planned on investing in her food vending business – she ran into procedural hurdles that prevented her from making her case in front of a judge. Today, Cristal joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to appeal her case to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that she be allowed to fight for her savings.
“Cristal, like many other Americans facing civil forfeiture, could not afford to hire an attorney and did not have one provided for her,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “But civil forfeiture procedures are a legal labyrinth and choosing the wrong path results in the government keeping your money forever. People deserve their day in court, especially when the government has taken their property without ever charging them with a crime.”
Cristal is a hard worker who loves helping people. She is the sole caretaker for her grandnephew, and she plans to go to nursing school so that she can pursue a career helping others. Prior to the pandemic she was a personal care assistant and ran a mobile food cart during the warmer months. When she was laid off from her personal care position, the mobile food cart became her sole source of income. Cristal had managed to gather together enough money to turn her mobile food cart into a food truck.
Unfortunately, she would lose that money just a few months later and has been fighting to get it back ever since.
“I never thought I could have my money taken from me when I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cristal said. “I’ve tried to follow all the steps to get my money back, but this whole process has been so confusing.”
Cristal’s nightmare started in October 2020, when police executed search warrants at two different Rochester homes they believed were affiliated with her now ex-boyfriend, whom they suspected of dealing drugs. The first warrant was executed at a home that was owned by the boyfriend’s mother, where they found drugs. The second was at Cristal’s apartment, where police found Cristal, her then-boyfriend, her grandnephew and $8,040.
Her ex-boyfriend was arrested and charged, but eventually acquitted—by a jury—of all charges. Cristal was never arrested nor charged with anything, but police seized her personal vehicle, her work vehicle and the money. She eventually got the vehicles back, but Rochester Police sent the money to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for civil forfeiture through a process known as the federal equitable sharing program.
When the DEA received the money, the agency sent Cristal a notice informing her that the government was attempting to forfeit the money, along with instructions on how to contest the forfeiture. She completed and returned all of the paperwork that the notice required. She also claims that she was in contact with the state prosecutor in her ex-boyfriend’s case who told her the money would be released when the criminal case was closed. What Cristal didn’t realize is that there was a separate action to forfeit her money also going on in federal court, and she missed the deadline to file paperwork in that case.
Once Cristal realized that more was required of her, she sent several letters to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, one asking to “have a motion filed on the docket to have my money be released and returned to me,” and another stating, “I have done everything that was asked of me to make a claim to my currency since the day it was confiscated.” In her letters, Cristal also stated that the government had offered her a settlement under which it would return half of her money, but she turned that offer down knowing that all the money rightly belonged to her.
“The process to get one’s money back following a forfeiture is unnecessarily complex and nearly impossible to navigate without legal representation,” said IJ Attorney Seth Young. “Cristal did everything she could to follow the instructions and still never got the day in court she deserves.”
On February 3, 2022, the District Court issued a decision striking Cristal’s claim to the money and ordering it forfeited to the government. The District Court acknowledged that Cristal’s “lack of training in the law is a disadvantage to her knowledge of the civil forfeiture rules,” but the Court faulted Cristal for her “decision not to seek an attorney’s advice.” As a result, Cristal never got her day in court.
Cristal’s situation is sadly not unique. The process for challenging a forfeiture is an incredibly convoluted one and includes various steps along the way where defendants risk losing their money forever, especially without professional legal help. Winning, on the other hand, requires a series of perfect decisions that take a long time. Because the amounts seized tend to be small, it’s often cost-prohibitive for individuals to hire attorneys and fight to get their money back. For example, Cristal was told that she could hire an attorney for $5,000, which is more than half the total that was seized from her.
A victory for Cristal in the Second Circuit would send her case back to the District Court, where a judge would actually hear the case on its merits, instead of dismissing Cristal’s case on procedural grounds.
IJ has brought suit against various civil forfeiture abuses, including a case in Nevada where police took a Marine veteran’s life savings without charging him with a crime, and a class action lawsuit challenging an Indiana law that allows private attorneys to profit off prosecuting civil forfeiture cases.