Police seized an innocent woman’s $8,040, and now she is fighting to have her day in court

Cristal Starling runs a mobile food cart in Rochester, New York, to provide for herself and her grandnephew. She dreamed of expanding the business into a food truck, and she saved enough money to do just that. But in the fall of 2020, the local police raided her apartment and seized $8,040—the money she was going to use to pursue her dream.

Police accused Cristal’s then-boyfriend of dealing drugs, but he was acquitted by a jury. Yet Cristal’s nightmare continued. The police turned Cristal’s savings over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which sought to keep her money through an abusive practice called civil forfeiture, and federal prosecutors pressed forward with the civil forfeiture case even after the not-guilty verdict. Civil forfeiture laws take the presumption of innocence and turn it upside down, forcing property owners like Cristal to prove their own innocence.

Cristal fought to get her money back. She did everything she knew—making phone calls, following instructions she received, and filing a claim with the DEA. It made no economic sense to hire a lawyer to recover $8,040, so Cristal tried to fight without one. She successfully navigated the administrative process at the DEA, but when prosecutors filed a forfeiture action in federal court she missed the deadline to file one required piece of paper. That was enough for the government to take her money forever.

The government never even tried to show that Cristal had done anything wrong, but it was able to take her money by tying her up in complicated legal procedures. And, unfortunately, that is typical in civil forfeiture cases. The average value of forfeiture cases is small, meaning it doesn’t make sense for most people to hire a lawyer even if they could afford one, and most civil forfeiture cases end with a missed deadline rather than a decision on the merits. Property owners are forced to run a procedural gauntlet, and they lose by default if they make just a single mistake.

Cristal has teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to appeal the district court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In a non-forfeiture case, the court would have let Cristal continue her case notwithstanding a single missed deadline. Forfeiture should be no different. Cristal showed up in court to fight, she tried to fight, and she should have been allowed to make her case.

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