Police Use Civil Forfeiture Laws To Take $107K From Massachusetts Couple During Traffic Stop

| by Nik Bonopartis
wad of money (stock photo)wad of money (stock photo)

Adam and Jennifer Perry were on their way to a hearing specialist in October 2012 when a group of armed men stopped their car and relieved them of $107,520 in cash, their wedding rings and their Toyota Tundra.

The armed men they encountered on Interstate 80 in Illinois weren't criminals, at least by the standard definition -- they were police, and they used civil forfeiture law to seize everything the couple had without filing a single criminal charge or finding any evidence.

Since 9/11, when certain controls on police were relaxed, departments throughout the U.S. have taken more than $2.5 billion from American motorists and pedestrians who were stopped by police and had their assets taken without being charged with a crime or being suspected of a specific crime, a Washington Post investigation found in 2014. In those cases, police only have to say they suspect the money they seize is in some way tied to criminal activity to take it from Americans, with no clear recourse for the victims.

Police departments have come to rely on civil asset forfeiture as a source of income, with more than 500 police departments and task forces funding 20 percent or more of their annual budgets with cash seized from average people who have not been arrested or charged, The Washington Post investigation found.

In the Perry couple's case, the police found no drugs and no evidence of criminal activity, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm that represents select clients free of charge. Adam tried explaining to officers that the money came from a combination of personal income, cash from selling the couple's other car, disability payments, and personal income, the Illinois Dispatch-Argus reported. The couple showed police a transaction report from their bank to prove the cash was not the result of criminal activity, but police still took the money anyway.

"Our faith in the U.S. legal system has been shaken," Adam wrote in a letter to a federal judge in 2013. "Why are [police] allowed to be judge, jury and executioner on the side of the road?”

The couple has been trying to get their money back since the 2012 incident, with no luck. Adam told the Dispatch-Argus that the seized Toyota Tundra was the couple's only remaining vehicle, and he added that the incident left the couple in financial difficulty. They were carrying the cash, he told the judge, because they were headed to a hearing specialist in Salt Lake City, where Adam hoped to receive treatment for hearing loss.

A forfeiture case is currently pending against the couple in the U.S. District Court, Rock Island. The case was originally filed in 2013, with federal prosecutors requesting that the money be permanently awarded to the government, according to the Argus-Dispatch. In 2014, the federal judge ruled that the Perrys could not protest the seizure or lay claim to their money until they explained where their funds came from. The couple wrote letters to the judge and federal authorities in December, in which they repeatedly pointed out that they were neither accused nor convicted of a crime, so there should be no burden on them to prove where the money came from. Nonetheless, the couple did explain the source of the cash in correspondence with the court.

The Illinois legal system offers citizens "very little protection" against civil asset forfeiture, according to a "Policing for Profit" report by the the Institute of Justice. The institute also noted that victims must pay a $100 bond or pay 10 percent the value of the seized property for the opportunity to challenge the seizure in court.

In the Perrys' case, all it took to justify the seizure was cops claiming that a bag in their car smelled of marijuana, even though no drugs were found, the Institute for Justice reported. The bag itself was found after a drug dog sniffed and indicated on the car, and police searched the vehicle without a warrant or the couple's consent. 

Three years later, they're still battling for the return of their cash and assets.

"This is not Nazi Germany where you can treat people like this," Adam wrote in a recent letter to the federal judge, according to the Argus-Dispatch.

Sources: Institute for Justice (2), The Washington Post, Argus-Dispatch (2) / Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, 401(K) 2012/Flickr