WaPo series looks at cash seized by police during car stops

Tactic is widely used in Maryland

September 08, 2014|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

This week, the Washington Post is running a series on how police work to seize cash during car stops without a warrant or making an arrest -- and data compiled by the paper suggests Baltimore City and Baltimore County police are among the biggest financial beneficiaries of the controversial tactic.

Under a federal program, police departments can get payouts when they seize cash. And since 2001 the two Maryland departments each received $7 million taken from motorists and others, according to the Post's analysis.

That ranks Baltimore City police 18th in the nation for money received under the program and Baltimore County Police 19th, according to the Post's data. New York City Police top the ranking, having raked in $27 million.

"Asset forfeiture continues to be an integral part of the multifaceted approach to the fight against violent crime and the drug trade," said Baltimore Police spokesman Lt. J. Eric Kowalczyk. "The money seized reduces revenue to illegal drug markets while helping to fund interdiction and enforcement efforts."

Baltimore County police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Law enforcement officials told the Baltimore Sun last year that money raised through such asset forfeitures help stymie drug traffickers while also helping to pay for police training. Police must show that the money is connected to drugs or other crimes. 

An investigation by the Sun found that about half of federal money seizure cases filed as civil actions closed in 2012 were not tied to a criminal conviction, and many more cases are never challenged in court. Such numbers concern defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates who fear the tactic can hurt innocent people.

The Washington Post series is digging into a network of police officers who share tips on how to find cash and information about suspects on the roadways. The stories also describe the connection between efforts to boost domestic security after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and increasingly aggressive policing on America's highways.

One of the Post's stories describes the case of Jose Jeronimo Sorto and Victor Ramos Guzman, two Baltimore church leaders who were driving on I-95 near Richmond carrying $28,500 to buy land for a church in El Salvador and a trailer for a new congregation in North Carolina.

Virginia State Police pulled the men's car over, accusing them of speeding and following too closely and seized the money. After a team of lawyers agreed to represent the men for free, they eventually got the cash back.

Federal prosecutors in Maryland have been involved in a number of controversial cash seizure cases. 

In one case, a woman whose husband apparently killed himself after police found a marijuana growing operation at their home, had to sell off assets to pay federal authorities who filed to take the house. And in another, prosecutors began a court case to claim a share of the home of a man who had made pornographic images of his daughters, delaying their mother's plans to move out and leave the site of the abuse behind.

The City Paper recently reported that a federal judge rejected authorities' attempt to take $100,000 seized after a Baltimore car stop and the search of a suspect's home. In a separate state court proceeding, defense lawyers showed that the stop was illegal.

And a woman from Indiana is fighting to get back $122,000 seized from her husband at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Her lawyer has accused police and prosecutors of using a faked a drug dog certificate to help the case along. The allegations sparked an investigation by Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

The court case is ongoing and prosecutors have denied the allegation and said they want to investigate further.

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan

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