The federal government agreed to return $11,000, plus interest payments, it seized from a young man traveling to Florida nearly three years ago under laws that allow law enforcement to take property if it suspects it’s tied to a crime.
In February 2014, Charles Clarke, who was 24 at the time, was waiting for a flight at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport when officers with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force and the airport police department seized his cash using civil asset forfeiture.
Clarke was traveling from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had spent a few weeks with family, to Orlando, Florida, where his mother lived and where he would begin classes at the University of Central Florida.
Upon arriving at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Clarke checked two bags and proceeded to the gate. There, the now 26-year-old was approached by law enforcement.
The agents had received a call from a ticketing agent with US Airways who told police Clarke’s luggage smelled like marijuana, according to an affidavit filed with the courts.
Police searched Clarke and his bag, and the student admitted to having cash in his pocket, according to an affidavit filed by William Conrad, a Cincinnati-based agent on the DEA task force.
After talking with Clarke, agents seized the $11,000, his cellphone, and iPad under civil asset forfeiture laws. The phone and iPad were eventually returned.
The officers alleged the money was “the proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in an illegal transaction,” according to court documents.
But Clarke said the money came from five years worth of savings from different jobs, financial aid, gifts from his family members, and benefits from his mother, who is a disabled veteran. He planned to use the money to pay for living and school expenses upon returning to Florida.
When the officers attempted to take Clarke’s money, Conrad alleged the young man grabbed a second officer’s wrist.
He was subsequently arrested and charged with assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The charges were ultimately dropped.
After Clarke’s money was seized, the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Arlington, Virginia, challenged the seizure in court.
The organization and the government came to a settlement agreement last week, and the government agreed to return Clarke’s money, plus interest.
“We were delighted that Charles is getting every penny of his money back,” Renée Flaherty, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice who represented Clarke, told The Daily Signal. “Civil forfeiture gives law enforcement a profit incentive to seize more and more property. Sometimes it can take years for the property owner to get the money back, and that’s even if they’re able to fight in the first place.”
Officers with the DEA and the airport police seized Clarke’s money under the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, under which local and state law enforcement are entitled to up to 80 percent of the proceeds from seized cash and property.
Under the Equitable Sharing Program, law enforcement agencies can forfeit money under federal civil forfeiture laws, allowing local and state entities to circumvent state civil forfeiture laws. Oftentimes, state civil forfeiture laws are more stringent than those at the federal level.
Proponents of civil forfeiture reform advocate for the abolishment of the Equitable Sharing Program, under which $6.8 billion in cash and property were seized from 2008 to 2013.
But law enforcement groups typically oppose any end to the Justice Department’s program.
Over the years, law enforcement’s use of civil forfeiture has increased, and many innocent property owners have become entangled in the forfeiture system. The use of the tool at airports like the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has followed that trend.
Law enforcement at the airport conducted just 30 seizures in 1998, according to data obtained by the Institute for Justice. In 2013, that number grew to 92 seizures—the highest in a 16-year span—with property seized totaling more than $2 million.
The majority of the property—78 percent—seized by the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport police was cash.
“When law enforcement gets to keep the money,” Flaherty said, “there’s going to be an incentive to seize more and more property.”