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10 Ways to Steer Clear of Highway Cash Seizures


What started out as a routine traffic stop on a Virginia highway ended with two church leaders handing over to police $25,000 in cash donations from their congregants.

The money was supposed to go toward the construction of a new church, and the men were transporting the money from the old site to the new location when officers pulled them over and had dogs search their vehicle. The men were not charged with any crimes, but law enforcement officers seized the money anyway.

The experience took the men completely by surprise, and they contacted an attorney and the advocacy group Americans for Forfeiture Reform in Kansas City, Mo.

“These guys said, ‘This is completely insane. We are a church. This is money we raised through donations and at services. We have no connection to any illegal activity,” says Eapen Thampy, executive director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, an advocacy group based in Kansas City, Mo.

The men went through legal proceedings and eventually got their money back.

But the incident represents a larger trend that has been taking place for more than a decade. Highway property seizures have been on the rise in the wake of the federal Patriot Act of 2001, when the Department of Homeland Security asked state and local officers to more aggressively patrol U.S. highways. A recent investigation by the Washington Post details how police have seized hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists who were not charged with crimes.

“After the Patriot Act was passed, law enforcement around the country realized that they could derive a lot of profit from searching and seizing property from automobile drivers,” Thampy says.

Public advocates and law enforcement officials say there are ways motorists can avoid having their money seized by the police. Here are some of the steps you can take.

1. Don’t give officers a reason to pull you over.

Law enforcement officers prowl the highway looking for stops. A broken tail light, expired tags, driving too fast or any kind of minor or moving violation could get you pulled over.

“If they don’t have a reason to pull you over, they obviously can’t get started on this road,” says Charles B. Frye, a Houston attorney specializing in forfeiture law in Texas.

2. Document your valuables.

If you’re planning to take to the highway with cash and possessions, important to make an itemized record beforehand detailing what and how much you’re carrying. That way, in the event of a seizure, you know exactly what was taken. “If you’re traveling with valuables, have everything documented as well as you can,” Thampy says.

3. Say no to drugs.

If you’re driving with a lot of cash, being in possession of even a few grams of an illegal substance can almost guarantee that police will seize your money if you get pulled over, says Chief Mark Overton of the Bal Harbour Police Department in Bal Harbour Village, Fla. The same goes for passengers, too.

“And you’re going to have to prove how it wasn’t connected to narcotics,” Overton says.

4. Keep a clean record.

When an officer pulls someone over and runs a background check on that person, records will show if that person has prior drug convictions or DWI arrests. That could give an officer a reason to conduct a search. “Once you’re in the system, you have to be extraordinarily more careful,” Frye says.

5. Don’t hide your money.

In some states, it’s against the law to have a hidden compartment, other than a glove box, in a vehicle for the purpose of transporting substances. That might be a sliding door between the back seat and trunk.

But stowing a very large amount of cash in a suitcase or paper bag also can raise eyebrows during a traffic stop. “There’s a difference between $5,000 in a person’s pocket and $200,000 in a bag in the trunk or under a tire. Depending on the circumstances, you might be justified to take that money. But you need to find some justification,” Overton says.

6. Withhold consent.

If officers do pull you over, they need to have probable cause to search your vehicle, or your consent. Frye cautions that drivers don’t have to give that consent.

“The officer uses a variety of psychological ploys to get you to consent,” Frye says.

For instance, an officer might engage a motorist in conversation, asking questions about what the driver is doing and where that person is going.
Giving consent can also lead to an officer bringing out a drug dog, which can be problematic even if you are not carrying any illegal substances. Frye points out that paper money is often tainted with traces of drugs. A 2009 study led by a University of Massachusetts scientist found that 90% of the U.S. currency supply is laced with cocaine.

7. Have a good reason.

If you’re going to have a lot of cash on you, you need to have a reasonable explanation for why you have it, Overton says.

It works in motorists’ favor if they can give the police a good, honest reason, such as working as a jeweler for a living. Most people, however, just have a one-time reason, such as they dislike banks or are transporting a cash donation. “You really need to have a legitimate reason,” Frye says.

8. Videotape

Keeping an objective record of the traffic stop is “absolutely essential” for use in court legal proceedings, Thampy says. “It is the No. 1 way to hold law enforcement accountable for what they’re doing.”

One of the best ways to do this is by recording a video of the stop, Thampy says. He contends that when law enforcement is looking for property, they will go to great lengths to generate leads. “If you have videotape evidence that shows your stop was unconstitutional or based on a lie, you’re miles ahead in any legal proceeding,” he says.

9. Fly.

If you plan to transport valuables, you might consider traveling by air instead of on the highway. Thampy suggests flying as an alternative to driving because there’s little consequence to getting money past security. “TSA is not nearly as rapacious as law enforcement. I’m not aware that they do a lot of asset forfeiture,” he says.

10. Fight the fight.

The only way to assure that you won’t get back any of your seized property is to forgo the court fight. Many people who have their property seized don’t even contest it. “If you’re a real drug dealer, do you want to come to court? No. It’s really only the innocent people who have the problem. And that’s really where the abuses are,” Frye says.

Often, the defendant still has a shot at getting the money back. Supervisors need to sign off on the seizure, and Overton says there have been instances where his department has given money back because a supervisor determined that there was no probable cause to seize the money.

While Overton advocates for aggressive law enforcement when dealing with street level-narcotics, he says that no officer should infringe on someone’s constitutional rights. “I don’t know of any statutes that say it’s illegal to carry cash.”