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After a months-long trip to visit extended family in Cincinnati, Charles Clarke was approached by local law enforcement while preparing to board a flight home to Orlando. A tip from a ticket agent, who claimed that Clarke’s bag smelled like marijuana, had spurred the encounter.
The officers, who were working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, began quizzing Clarke, a 22-year-old African-American and college student, on his travel plans. They also asked him if he was carrying cash. Believing he had nothing to hide from law enforcement, Clarke consented to a search of his carry-on bag.
Clarke was carrying approximately $11,000 in cash, money he had obtained through legal means, including his job and student loans. Before taking his trip, he had decided to bring the money with him because his mother, whom he lives with, was moving and Clarke did not want his money to be lying around for movers to find.
“I asked them if they searched my [checked] bags, and they told me yes and that they didn’t find anything,” Clarke said in a video released by the Institute for Justice, the libertarian public interest law firm that is representing him in federal court. “And to prove the fact that I didn’t have anything, I let them search my carry-on. And they didn’t find anything. I didn’t have any drugs on me, anything at all, and they still took my money.”
Carrying cash for domestic travel, of course, is not a crime. But federal civil asset forfeiture laws, as well as most state statutes, create perverse incentives for law enforcement to take people’s property. Under these laws, state and local law enforcement, working in coordination with federal agencies, can seize money under federal forfeiture law and receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds in return. And, in a distortion of justice, the burden of proof in federal forfeiture proceedings falls on the property owners, not the government. This disproportionately impacts low-income people; as there is generally no constitutional right to an attorney in forfeiture cases, property owners who cannot afford legal representation are often left with no choice but to attempt to represent themselves in court.