They fought the law. Who won? | The Washington Post

| September 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

They fought the law. Who won? | The Washington Post.


Mandrel Stuart and his girlfriend were on a date driving on Interstate 66 toward the District when a Fairfax County police cruiser pulled out of the median and raced after them. The cruiser kept pace alongside Stuart’s old blue Yukon for a while, then followed behind for several miles before turning on its flashing lights.

ABOVE: After more than two years, Matt Lee won back the $2,400 taken from him through civil forfeiture in July 2011 by the sheriff’s department in Humboldt County, Nev. As part of the agreement, he had to sign a form releasing the department of any liability. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

The traffic stop on that balmy afternoon in August 2012 was the beginning of a dizzying encounter that would leave Stuart shaken and wondering whether he had been singled out because he was black and had a police record.

Over the next two hours, he would be detained without charges, handcuffed and taken to a nearby police station. He also would be stripped of $17,550 in cash — money that he had earned through the Smoking Roosters, a small barbecue restaurant he owned in Staunton, Va. Stuart said he was going to use the money that night for supplies and equipment.

Stop and Seize: In recent years, thousands of people have had cash confiscated by police without being charged with crimes. The Post looks at the police culture behind the seizures and the people who were forced to fight the government to get their money back.
Part 1: After Sept. 11, 2001, a cottage industry of private police trainers emerged to teach aggressive techniques of highway interdiction to thousands of local and state police.
Part 2: One training firm started a private intelligence-sharing network and helped shape law enforcement nationwide.
Live chat at noon Wednesday​: The reporters behind “Stop and Seize” will be online to answer your questions about the investigative series. Submit your questions here.

The reason for the police stop: Stuart’s SUV had tinted windows and a video was playing in his sightline. He was never charged with a crime, and there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But police took his money because they assumed it was related to the drug trade.

Stuart would have to fight the federal government for any chance of getting his money back.

“Why didn’t he just give me a ticket?” Stuart asked the prosecutor. “What was the reason for him harassing me as much as he did?”

Stuart’s case is among 400 seizures from 17 states examined by The Washington Post to assess how the practice known as “highway interdiction” has affected American drivers. Their experiences, gleaned from legal papers and interviews, contain striking similarities that underscore questions about police power in an era when security has often trumped the rights of individuals.

Many of the highway officers involved were trained in the techniques of interdiction after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, some with financial support from the departments of Homeland Security and Justice. The officers were able to seize cash and have their departments share in the proceeds through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Police can also make seizures under their state laws.

Their methods often involve the use of minor traffic infractions as pretexts for stops; an analysis of “indicators” about drivers’ intentions, such as nervousness; a request for warrantless searches; and a focus on cash. In most of the cases, police never make an arrest.

Some of the drivers had prior run-ins with police and lived their lives in cash economies, paying for everything from food to rent and business expenses with hard currency. Many of them had to engage in long legal struggles to get their money back after officers made roadside judgments about one of the most fundamental of American rights — the right to own property.

Police say the stop-and-seizure tactic hurts drug organizations and increases security on the highways. But drivers and their advocates say that all too often it is the innocent who suffer the emotional and financial consequences of misplaced power.

“We have been fighting this battle for a number of years . . . but it is just breathtaking to hear what is happening on a grand scale,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties group in Arlington. “It should not exist in a country that respects fundamental notions of due process.”

Read the rest of the article | The Washington Post.

Category: Laws and Advice

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