A young man driving on the interstate is stopped for an alleged traffic violation. Officers don’t issue a citation and they don’t arrest the young driver. Instead, the officers search his car. The officers find a large sum of cash, and then they take it away from him! The following week, he is served with a lawsuit from the District Attorney’s office. The lawsuit alleges that the money is drug money and that the state has a legal basis to keep all of it. The frightened young man calls a lawyer and explains what happened. He finishes the story of the traffic stop by saying, “I didn’t know it was illegal to carry cash!”
State law in Georgia allows law enforcement officers to seize money and property found anywhere near drugs or drug sales. Depending on the dollar amount of the money or property in question, there are two ways the state can then move forward on civil forfeiture of seized items. For seizures of between $2,500 and $25,000, the District Attorney’s office of the county where the seizure occurred can proceed through a process referred to as administrative forfeiture. For seizures of cash or property in excess of $25,000, the District Attorney’s office must proceed by filing a civil lawsuit. In either case, the rightful owner of the money or property must file a timely response.
The practice of seizing assets believed to be the proceeds of drug activity is not new. In recent years, however, as states and counties have faced budget crises on all levels, the tactics of law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys’ offices have become increasingly questionable. Law enforcement now routinely seizes money and property in cases where there is no connection to drug possession or activity. They do so hoping that the owner will give up without a fight, and that the cash strapped county will come into a windfall.
Worse yet, law enforcement routinely seizes money and property in cases where there is not even an allegation of drug related activity. We see cases where seizures took place without arrest, which brings up the obvious question: is it illegal to carry cash? Or, is it illegal to carry cash without being able to provide a detailed explanation of where it came from to anyone who might stop you and discover the money?
The first and most important answer is also the simplest: it is not illegal to carry cash. There is no prohibition on carrying large sums of money in Georgia or any other state in the Union. United States currency is not contraband! It is true that there are banking and tax regulations on large cash transactions. Bank deposits of $10,000 or more in cash must be reported to the IRS. Possession of cash, however, is not a crime!
There is an equally simple reason why law enforcement is seizing money and property in cases where there is no legitimate basis for forfeiture. If the owner of the seized property does not file a timely response, the state wins by default! Most people who are facing civil forfeiture, whether they are also facing criminal charges or not, are too afraid to fight back, and they also don’t know how to respond even if they want to. If you were stopped by the police and they took all of your money, would you know how to respond to a civil lawsuit filed by the District Attorney’s Office for the forfeiture of your cash?
We handle forfeiture cases with regularity and with confidence. And why not? The law which provides for forfeiture of the proceeds of drug dealing and other illegal behavior places the burden squarely on the state to show that forfeiture is appropriate. Most people facing a forfeiture case simply don’t respond, which results in a default victory for the state. Filing an answer is almost always enough to win the case without a hearing. We rarely see forfeiture cases with any merit whatsoever to the state’s claims.
We respond to these cases very aggressively. We file an answer with specific defenses, which forces the state to admit that they don’t have a legitimate case for forfeiture. What happens next? The state returns the money, the car, and whatever else they took away. Don’t take civil forfeiture lying down! If it happens to you, fight it! It is not illegal to carry cash!