Fix Forfeiture Laws in Buckeye State

“I had no idea something like this could happen in America.” That’s what Antoinette Lattimore, a resident of North College Hill near Cincinnati, said about the seizure of the $19,660 in cash she was carrying on a road trip in 2013 to Tucson, Arizona, where she hoped to purchase African art.

The cash was seized by a Dayton police officer on the mere suspicion that it was connected to the drug trade. Lattimore wasn’t arrested, nor was she charged with a crime. “I’ve never been arrested before in my life,” she said. “I even could prove that it was my money, but that didn’t matter.”

Lattimore was a victim of a little-known tool called civil asset forfeiture, a process by which the government can seize money and forfeit it based on a very low standard of evidence. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock principle of the American legal system, and due process protections in the Ohio and U.S. constitutions, are thrown out the window. Cash or property subject to forfeiture is guilty until proven innocent by the property owner.

In Lattimore’s case, the seizing local law enforcement agency sought forfeiture of the cash in federal court, where, if successful, it would receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds from the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Fund. State and local law enforcement in the Buckeye State has reaped a windfall from this program, taking in “more than $80 million from 2000 to 2008,” according to a 2010 report from the Institute for Justice.

Facing a lengthy process and mounting attorney’s fees, Lattimore settled. She received $11,000 of the cash back but pocketed only $8,000 after legal expenses.