Last time, this New Orleans criminal defense lawyer offered up some opinions on civil forfeiture. In the latest installment of this fascinating blog, I will give you a real-life example of how it works in practice. Please note that this is a hypothetical situation created from real-life information. All of the information is public record.
Young man (we'll call him Joe) was arrested in a major nationwide operation related to the distribution of what was then known as “mojo.” Mojo goes by various other street names, such as “K9,” “spice,” “diamond,” etc. Basically, it's synthetic marijuana. To make it, people buy a green leafy substance that looks vaguely similar to marijuana (such as oregano) and spray it with chemicals that supposedly mimic the effects of marijuana. I've been told that the stuff is nasty and isn't really anything like marijuana, but you know how these kids today will do anything for a buzz….. In this case, some of Joe's co-defendants were caught with over 30 pounds of the stuff and nearly $1 million in cash in suitcases. A major criminal enterprise, this.
After Joe was arrested, the parish authorities looked at some of his assets. They discover that he is a very low man on the totem pole. Turns out that Joe had an account with Chase with a little over $3,200.00 in it. The authorities believed that the money in that account derived from sales of mojo. Accordingly, they served Joe with a notice of forfeiture in the parish prison, where he was sitting having failed to make an enormous bond.
In these situations, Louisiana law provides that the following may be seized: (1) contraband or any controlled substance, raw material, or controlled substance analogue, (2) property furnished or intended to be furnished by any person in exchange for a controlled substance, (3) property used or intended to be used in any manner to facilitate conduct giving rise to forfeiture, (4) a weapon used to facilitate conduct giving rise to forfeiture, (5) an interest in any enterprise that a person has established, operated, controlled, conducted, or participated in the conduct of through conduct giving rise to forfeiture, and (6) proceeds from any transaction involving an illegal drug. Clearly, in this situation, (6) was the only portion of the statute that applies.
Joe informed his lawyer that the money in the Chase account was money that he and his girlfriend had earned legitimately through the course of their respective employments and that both he and his girlfriend used the account to pay off certain credit cards. Joe asks his lawyer to contest the forfeiture.
I must stop and make an observation here. It is completely understandable that Joe would want his lawyer to contest the actual forfeiture. It was his money and it was earned legitimately, after all. I also recognize that $3,200.00 is no small amount of money, but when it comes to civil forfeitures, it actually is a relatively small amount of money. In many cases, you hear about people be stopped for a traffic offense with five or six (or even seven) figures of cash on them. Sometimes, the authorities will not even look to seize an amount like $3,200.00, as they may figure it's not worth their time.
The reason that I am pointing this out is because if ANY amount of money is seized via civil forfeiture, the person that is the subject of the seizure will probably have to hire a lawyer to get it back, and that costs money. While it is possible to do this work oneself, your chances of recovery are infinitely better if you hire a person (like me) to recover what he or she case. That's just a fact.
I read an article about a guy who had approximately $2,400.00 seized from him, and, as would be expected, he hired a lawyer to get that money back. The lawyer was successful in contesting the forfeiture, but the lawyer cost the guy about half of the money that was seized. Although he admittedly did not mention it, due to the level of his indignation and his making his story public, I got the impression that the guy was kind of bitter that he had to hire a lawyer and that the lawyer charged him half of the money that was seized to get the remaining half of the money back. I can understand the dude's frustration (apparently he eventually recovered the entirety of the money plus attorneys fees). However, his gripe should not be with the lawyer but with the authorities that seized his money in the first place. Lawyers do have a long and proud tradition of pro bono service. Hell, I have a pro bono case that I've been working on for the last 4 years or so. What many people do not know is that “pro bono” is short for “pro bono publico,” which is Latin for “in the public good.” The idea is that lawyers should contribute some time to causes and cases that could make an appreciable impact or contribute to society as a whole. I've had many people approach me and ask me if I could take their drug case or domestic battery case on pro bono (in fact, it happened yesterday). Those cases do not really involve major societal issues, so I am almost without exception not going to take such a case on pro bono. I could see where some lawyers might think that a forfeiture case like the one mentioned above would be a case with a significant societal impact. I do not believe that it is.
In any event, lawyer speaks at length to Joe, subpoenas and reviews pertinent bank records, submits an affidavit with respect to the forfeiture claim, and is eventually successful in contesting the forfeiture. Thus, Joe is able to get back the money that was prohibitively seized from him. Or so he thought.
While lawyer is investigating the seizure dispute, the case against Joe is moving along. Eventually, the district attorney's office offers Joe a deal: we will agree to a certain sentence in exchange for you agreeing to testify against co-defendants if needed (of which there were more than 10) and agreeing to forfeit the $3,200.00 or so you had previously contested. Joe is worried that he will receive a very hefty sentence, so he agrees to the deal in exchange for a lighter sentence. Thus ends the case.
My feeling is that Joe was getting punched on both sides of his face. The right cross comes from the sheriff's office, which did the investigation and started the process to seize the assets. The left hook comes from the district attorney's office, which held the offer over Joe's head and compelled Joe to give up his right to keep the funds, even after lawyer successfully challenged the forfeiture.
There is nothing illegal with either of these actions. Whether they are morally or metaphysically right depends on your perspective. I simply offer the story as a real-world illustration as to how civil forfeiture works. Remember, the government (federal or state) has the power, the resources, and the supposed moral force of their own convictions. You do not want to simply be a cog in the machine, just another item rolling by on the assembly line. This is why you need a good lawyer to fight for you. I have successfully defended civil forfeiture claims in the past, which is certainly something that not every defense lawyer can say. If you are the subject of a civil forfeiture or any other criminal case, call the Law Office of Alex Kriksciun today!