Attorney Dan Eckhart reflects on his cases involving cash seizures where drug dogs mistakenly alerted to the presence of drugs.
Back to the Future? Cash Seizures Involving Drug Dogs
When I was a rookie Special Agent with the U.S. Customs Service in the 1980’s the feds implemented a “Zero Tolerance Policy” for the seizure of cash and property. The policy allowed law enforcement to seize property or currency with even the slightest link to illegal drugs: regardless of the drug amount. U.S. Customs and DEA seized boats, cars, homes and cash when they discovered small amounts of marijuana, sometimes just a few joints. As stories of these forfeitures circulated, the public was outraged, and the policy was overturned.
While no official Zero Tolerance Policy exists today, I’d argue that the seizure of cash after a positive drug K-9 alert is damn close. Over the past few years I’ve handled a number of civil forfeiture cases where client’s legally earned cash was seized by federal or state law enforcement because of drug K-9 alerts. Keep in mind that multiple scientific studies have shown that 90% percent of U.S. currency contains trace amounts of drug residue. Yes, the money in your wallet or purse is probably tainted. One reason is the legalization of marijuana in most states. Since K-9’s are trained to alert to about a dozen illicit drugs including marijuana, innocent people are having their cash seized by local and federal law enforcement. Law enforcement has a financial incentive to continue this practice since all or a portion of the money forfeited will flow back to their agencies under state statutes or asset sharing agreements between the feds and local police.
What’s troubling is that it’s perfectly legal to travel with currency in this country. If you wanted, you could take a domestic flight from Orlando to Detroit with $1,000,000 cash and have no obligation to report anything. While the reporting requirements for currency exceeding $10,000 apply only to international travel it seems that TSA is concluding (with the help of drug dogs) that anyone carrying lots of cash is a drug dealer. While some may question why people carry large amounts of cash, many people simply don’t trust banks or the government and prefer doing business in currency.
I currently am representing individuals whose cash, bank accounts, cars, homes, and boats have been seized by state or federal law enforcement. In the past, I’ve been successful in getting most, if not all of my client’s money back. While every case is different and I can’t guarantee the same results, I thought I would share the following results. Some involve drug dogs while a few do not:
$42,000 (2022 Homeland Security Seizure-Declined by U.S. Attorney’s Office) $42,000 Returned
The client flew to Florida to care for her ailing father and brought her life savings of $42,000 in order to provide him assistance and possibly relocate. After she arrived in Florida, she pulled over to the side of the road because she was lost. A local police officer saw her car and began questioning her. The officer determined the client was under the influence of alcohol and gave her a breathalyzer test that yielded 0% BAL. After the client allegedly failed a field sobriety test she was arrested, taken to a jail and the $42,000 she was carrying was seized as drug proceeds after a drug K-9 alerted on the money. The DUI case was dismissed by the state prosecutor but local law enforcement refused to return my client’s money. The seizure was then adopted by DEA and I demanded review by a federal judge. After reviewing receipts proving the funds were from legitimate sources (mostly Covid-19 relief funds) the forfeiture was declined by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and all my client’s money was returned.
$100,000 in Gold Jewelry (2022 DEA Seizure-Declined by U.S. Attorney’s Office)
$100,00 in Gold Jewelry Returned
A nationally known music artist/performer’s home was searched pursuant to a state search warrant. Gold jewelry he purchased with the proceeds of his records sales was seized by local law enforcement even though he was not being investigated for drug trafficking. The basis for the seizure was a positive hit by a drug K-9. DEA adopted the case and I demanded review by a federal judge. The U.S. Attorney’s Office after I provided evidence that the jewelry was purchased with legitimate income and the jewelry was returned to my client.
$20,000 (2021 Florida Seizure-Settlement)
The client was relocating to Florida from a state where marijuana is legal. He had his life savings and marijuana for his personal use in his car. After being pulled over for speeding his cash was seized after a drug K-9 alerted on the money. After providing proof of legitimate income and no nexus to drugs, the state agreed to return my client’s money less the costs it incurred for filing a civil forfeiture complaint and bond.
$40,140.52 (2021 DEA Seizure-Declined by the U.S. Attorney’s Office)
The client, an Orlando businessman, scheduled an appointment to purchase items from a Miami jewelry store. On the drive down he was stopped for speeding. While there were no drugs in the car, local police seized his cash after a drug dog alerted on the money. The case was adopted by DEA and I demanded a federal judge hear the case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined the case after I provided income verification and the jeweler verified my client had an appointment the day of the traffic stop.
$14,000 (2021 Homeland Security Seizure-Settlement)
Young Vietnamese couple was flying from Orlando International Airport to Vietnam to attend a funeral and visit their families. The girlfriend owned a nail salon and English was a second language for both. She was carrying $10,000 to give to her family and the boyfriend had $4,000 for his family. Inspectors conducted a random search of the couple on the jetway and discovered the cash. The couple was interrogated by non-Vietnamese speaking inspector who concluded that all $14,000 was owned by the boyfriend. After providing Homeland Security with bank receipts proving independent ownership of the seized funds all but $500 of the seized cash was returned.
$44,701.00 (2022 Homeland Security Seizure-Declined by U.S. Attorney’s Office)
The client was taking a domestic flight carrying cash to make in a business investment. The currency was discovered by TSA agents at the airport security checkpoint and the money was seized after a positive alert by a drug dog. I demanded review of the case by a federal judge. After providing business receipts to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, all the money was returned to my client.