State takes $39,500 from trucker headed to an auction
July 27, 2021
Almost a year ago, the owner of a small trucking operation based in Maryland flew to Phoenix in hopes of adding a truck to his small fleet. Instead, law enforcement officers seized his $39,500 in cash stowed in his luggage through civil asset forfeiture. He was charged with no crime.
Jerry Johnson owns Triple J. Logistics, which is licensed in Maryland. He works from the Charlotte, N.C., area hauling dry van freight. He and his two employees operate along the East Coast, from Pennsylvania to Florida.
He owns two Peterbilts: A 2005 587 with more than 1 million miles and a 2012 587. He was hoping to add a 2016 Peterbilt 579 with a Cummins engine to his fleet. It was one of several Peterbilts available through the Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers operation in Phoenix. He flew out Aug. 17, 2020, to take part in the auction.
“As soon as I got off the plane, I went to get my checked luggage,” he told Land Line.
He was stopped by a plain-clothes law enforcement officer. When Johnson told him he didn’t have time, the officer showed his badge.
Suspected of money laundering
“He asked me if I was carrying any drugs, and I said no. Then he asked if I had a large sum of money,” Johnson said.
Yes, he did. It was stowed in his checked luggage in two cardboard boxes.
They also asked if he had booked the flight and if he had done it within the past 24 hours. Yes, he had booked the flight, and he wasn’t sure if he had done it over or under 24 hours previous to that time.
“He kept saying I wasn’t in trouble,” Johns said, but they repeatedly asked him about where he had gotten the money. It was from personal savings and a loan from an uncle, he told them. The officials knew he had two prior convictions for possession of marijuana and cocaine several years ago. Johnson said that he had done drugs in the past but was not doing them anymore.
“He told me the money smelled like marijuana,” Johnson said.
After grilling him for an hour, the officer handed him a paper.
“He said you can sign this paper and you’re free to go. If you don’t sign it, he said I would be arrested for money laundering,” Johnson said.
The paper was a “disclaimer of ownership” form that said he was surrendering ownership of his money. Johnson didn’t read it, however, and did as he was told under threat. They gave him a paper verifying the amount taken from him.
With no money to bid, Johnson didn’t even get to see the Peterbilt he had hoped to buy. He headed home the next day.
An education in forfeiture law
Johnson has already been to court trying to get his money returned to him. At the first hearing, he showed the court bank statements, tax returns, truck registration, and photos of his trucks. Despite that, the judge ruled against him and allowed the state to keep the money taken through civil asset forfeiture. It is a phrase Johnson didn’t know before. It is the process by which prosecutors can seize and keep assets because they are suspected of being involved in illegal activity. Often, it can be done without charges being filed or anyone being convicted.
“I thought anytime that they took your money you at least had to be charged with a crime,” he said.
To appeal the ruling, he Googled “civil asset forfeiture” and the Institute for Justice came up in the search results. It is a nonprofit libertarian public interest law firm.
At this point, appeals briefs have been filed in the case, and Johnson and his attorneys are waiting for the court to schedule oral arguments.
As he closes in on the one-year anniversary of his money being seized, he said his attorney has said there is a good chance his money will be returned to him. There is no guarantee, though. In Arizona last year, prosecutors were required to prove through clear and convincing evidence that money is connected to criminal activity before the property can be forfeited, Johnson’s attorney said in a statement. Instead, the court put the burden of proof on Johnson to prove his innocence.
“I’m still optimistic I’m going to get my money back. It’s just a long process,” Johnson said.
It has been an education to learn that the court and prosecutor can take money with no proof of a crime, he said.
“I would rather have been charged with a crime. At least then I’d know why they took it,” Johnson said.
No more cash at Ritchie Bros.
Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers no longer accepts cash, a corporate communications representative told Land Line.
The company used to accept cash, though it was uncommon, he said. However, since the coronavirus pandemic set in the company decided to stop the practice for fear of passing the contagion. The company has no plans to return to accepting cash payments.
Bidders instead can use electronic funds transfers or credit cards for deposits and other payments, the representative said.
Changes in civil asset forfeiture law
There have been some changes in Arizona law since Johnson’s money was seized last summer.
On May 5, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law legislation to require prosecutors to convict someone before property can be taken through civil asset forfeiture.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s appeal will be adjudicated under the laws in effect when his money was taken from him.
Beyond Arizona, on July 13 Maine became the fourth state in the U.S. to abolish civil asset forfeiture and only use criminal law to forfeit property. The legislation went into effect without Gov. Janet Mills’ signature.
The other states, listed by Reason.com, are North Carolina (since 1985), New Mexico (2015) and Nebraska (2016). LL