Asset forfeiture laws have long been criticized as a way for law enforcement agencies to line their pockets in the absence of due process. Just look at the case of Annette and Dale Shattuck, whose assets were seized even though charges against them were dropped. Years after their initial arrest, the Shattucks are still trying to get their property back.
Now, another troubling asset forfeiture tale has emerged out of Arkansas, reports reason.com. State police sergeant Dennis Overton pulled over Guillermo Espinoza in July of 2013, for an unspecified "traffic stop." Overton requested a drug dog, which did not alert on Espinoza's car. (If the dog did, it would've given police probable cause for a search).
Unsatisfied, Overton asked Espinoza to consent to a search, which Espinoza agreed to. The dog alerted on a bag that contained nearly $20,000 in cash. Despite finding no drugs, paraphernalia, or any other evidence of drug trafficking, Overton was convinced that Espinoza was a drug dealer.
"I've worked this interstate for the last eight years… Half of my career I've spent out here. OK? Nobody—nobody—carries their money like that but one person. OK? People that deal with drugs, and deliver drugs. That's it. Nobody else. Nobody," Overton told Espinoza.
According to reason.com:
"Espinoza, who had no criminal record and was never charged in this case, said the money came from years of construction work, and he later presented checks, receipts, and tax forms to substantiate that income. He said he took the money with him to Memphis because he was planning to buy a 4×4 truck there. But he was not happy with the advertised vehicle, so he did not complete the purchase. He offered to show Overton text messages he had exchanged with the truck seller and said his boss, whom he offered to call, would vouch for him. Overton, already convinced of Espinoza's guilt, was not interested."
There was so little evidence for his involvement in any sort of drug dealing that prosecutors wanted to drop the case, but Circuit Court Judge Chris Williams went ahead with the forfeiture anyway.
Espinoza appealed the decision, pointing to the state's lack of evidence and the court's indiscretions. But his appeal was dismissed last week on the grounds that he "failed to timely file his notice of appeal."
This is certainly not the first time law enforcement have insisted that having large amounts of cash must make a person a drug dealer. In May of last year, the DEA took $16,000 from Joseph Rivers while he was traveling on an Amtrak train. While Rivers was not detained or charged with a crime, the agents believed that he was involved in "some type of narcotic activity."
Once that money is in the hands of the government, it can be nearly impossible to get it back – even without any sort of conviction. Meanwhile, the Justice Department rakes in billions every year thanks to the asset forfeiture program.