The government wants your cash
Now it's happened again, this time in Michigan. But there's a twist: the search that uncovered the money was illegal, which turns this into a case with broader civil-liberties implications.
The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday denied the appeal of a motorist who had to forfeit nearly $181,000 that was found in a backpack during a traffic stop, even though the money was seized illegally....
Tamika Smith, who was stopped by a Michigan State Police trooper, lost the money when a judge ruled prosecutors presented enough other evidence to show it was intended to buy illicit drugs.
That evidence involved such legal activities as being poor, in possession of a large sum of money, while driving a rental car in a known drug-trafficking area.
Some details from Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson:
Five years ago, the 33-year-old Detroit woman was driving her boyfriend and her two small children to Chicago when a state trooper stopped her for speeding on I-94 outside Paw Paw. A license check revealed that the boyfriend had been arrested for cocaine possession and weapons offenses. In a subsequent (and apparently unauthorized) search of the couple's trunk, the trooper discovered a backpack containing $180,975 in cash.
Smith and her boyfriend denied the money was theirs and speculated that someone had left it in the car they had rented just a few hours earlier. But when prosecutors petitioned the state to keep the money, Smith contested the seizure, arguing that the search in which Trooper James Lass discovered the cash was illegal.
Van Buren County Circuit Judge William Buhl agreed, but eventually ruled the prosecutor's forfeiture suit could proceed, so long as the cash was never offered as evidence. When Smith, who had never earned more than $14,000 in a year, offered vague and unconvincing accounts of the money's origins, Buhl concluded that she was most likely a drug courier and ordered the money forfeited to the state.
Now I agree that Smith acted suspiciously and couldn't provide a good explanation of where the money came from. I'll even agree that she's most likely a drug courier. She also lost some standing by first denying that the money was hers.
But that's not the point. Before the government can seize private property, they should have to prove that it is tainted or ill-gotten. It's not up to the individual to prove the money is legitimately theirs; it's up to the government to prove it's not.
Question Smith about the money? Sure. Prosecute her if a crime can be established? Of course. I'd even support putting the money in the state's unclaimed funds account on the grounds that Smith denied it was hers, so she doesn't have a claim to it.
But taking property simply because, in a judge's opinion, someone is "most likely" a drug courier should offend anyone who believes in civil liberties or property rights.
You don't even have to go that far. Justice Stephen Markman, the state Supreme Court's most conservative member, wrote a stinging dissent on the narrow grounds that illegally obtained evidence cannot be used as evidence to support the seizure of said evidence. Here's the full opinion in the case (pdf); Markman's dissent begins on Page 30. In it he notes the bizarre logic used in the main opinion, which asserts that "while the cash itself was excluded from evidence, the trial court could properly consider the implications of the presence of such a large amount of cash in the vehicle." In other words, though the cash itself was excluded from evidence, the cash itself could be included as evidence.
Oak Park attorney Karri Mitchell, who represented Smith in her unsuccessful appeal, said the high court's ruling leaves every Michigan resident's property rights in jeopardy.
"This means that John Q. Public can be stopped for a traffic violation and, if the policeman thinks he can't afford the watch he's wearing, it becomes the property of the state unless he can prove he came by it legitimately," Mitchell said.
But Van Buren County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Bedford, who at one point offered Smith about $30,000 to drop her claim to the $180,000, called Mitchell's scenario far-fetched.
"Theoretically, a person could be forced to prove they came by an [illegally seized] asset legally," Bedford conceded.
"But hopefully, we don't have anybody out there abusing the forfeiture statute and putting people in a position where they have to do that."
Oh, I feel safer already, knowing that the state's best defense is that "hopefully, nobody will abuse the statute."
civil liberties, politics, midtopia