January 01, 2019 Feature

The Impact Litigation Campaign to End Civil Forfeiture

The practice of governmental property seizure is increasingly controversial.

Dan Alban

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Just after dark on February 27, 2017, Eh Wah was pulled over for a broken tail light while driving through Muskogee, Oklahoma. Eh Wah was a shy 40-year-old man who had immigrated to the United States from a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border 20 years earlier. Eh Wah was returning home to Dallas for a short break from his work as the volunteer manager for a Burmese Christian band during their five-month-long charity tour of the United States to raise money for a Thai orphanage and a remote Burmese refugee college. With him in his car was over $53,000 in cash that the band had raised on the tour, stored in envelopes identifying the concert location and amount of money raised. Dozens of envelopes filled with cash donations for the Hsa Thoo Lei orphanage listed the orphanage’s name, address, phone number, and email in English.

What seemed like a routine traffic stop suddenly became a full-blown narcotics investigation. After grilling Eh Wah about the details of his trip, sheriff’s deputies searched the car and found the envelopes filled with cash, but no drugs, paraphernalia, or any evidence of illegal activity. After a drug dog alerted on the cash, Eh Wah was interrogated for six hours before finally being released around midnight. The Muskogee County sheriff’s deputies kept all of the cash as suspected “drug proceeds.”

Two weeks later, without any further investigation, the Muskogee district attorney filed papers to permanently keep the money through civil forfeiture. And then Eh Wah, whose only prior run-in with the law was a 2001 traffic ticket, was charged with felony possession of drug proceeds based on a cursory five-sentence affidavit that failed to describe any illegal activity but stated that the money was seized due to “inconsistent stories” and “Wah unable to confirm the money was his.”

Eh Wah’s story sounds like a nightmare, but it is a common one—emblematic of the Kafkaesque world of civil forfeiture, an inequitable legal labyrinth from which even orphans and refugees are not safe. Across the country, unsuspecting travelers at airports, train stations, and highways are pulled aside and subjected to this legalized form of highway robbery. Small businesses and individuals suddenly discover that all of their funds have been seized from their bank accounts on the suspicion that they are “structuring” their banking transactions to avoid reporting requirements. Homes are raided—and sometimes even seized and sealed on the spot—in searches for cash or contraband.

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