A federal appeals court has blocked an attempt by local police and federal agents to grab and keep $69,000 in cash that was found in the trunk of a car.
There was no evidence of a crime, no violation of the law to which the money could be connected, but they wanted it anyway.
But now, the real owner, Dereck McClellan, will have a chance to explain to a jury why he kept his money where he did, and why he shouldn’t have to give it to federal agents.
The case is being handled by the Institute for Justice.
A report from Dan King, at the IJ, explains the background of the decision just released by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, “The case involves a North Carolina man, Dereck McClellan, who was found asleep in a car with $69,940.50 in cash in the trunk. Federal prosecutors had no idea where the cash came from, but they filed a civil forfeiture complaint alleging that the cash had to be drug proceeds. In the government’s view, only a drug dealer would have that much cash in a car.”
A federal judge in South Carolina shortly later agreed.
But the appeals court reversed the decision, and ruled “not using a bank does not necessarily make one a criminal.”
The case now goes back to a jury trial.
“If the government is going to take money from someone, they should be required to provide real evidence that the money was obtained in an illegal way, not simply throw around baseless assumptions,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Rob Johnson.
“Unfortunately, however, assumptions are all the government has in many civil forfeiture cases. Today’s decision sets an important precedent that will force the government to come forward with real evidence to convince a jury.”
Such forfeiture cases are becoming more and more common in America, and involve assets including, cars, property, houses and cash, too.
IJ argued that the government had to prove wrongdoing in a civil forfeiture case, rather than forcing a property owner to prove innocence. The appeals court agreed, saying, ‘The government has the burden of proof here, and that makes all the difference.”
“Dereck is very excited about the outcome, and it means a lot to him and his family that people are fighting for him,” said Adrianne Turner, McClellan’s attorney at Turner Law. “This decision would not have been possible without the help of IJ. Rob’s argument was invaluable. I cannot emphasize that enough.”
Police had found McClellan asleep in his car in a parking lot in 2019. There was an empty liquor bottle in the care, and he eventually pleaded guilty to “public intoxication.”
But police took the $69,940.50 that was in his car trunk.
“While the cash had no connection to any criminal charges, and police did not prove the money was obtained illegally, they still seized the money through a process called civil forfeiture,” the IJ reported.
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