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NBC29 Special Report: Asset Forfeiture Laws

Posted: Updated: May 28, 2015 05:32 PM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A controversial tactic used by police in central Virginia, the state and country is under the microscope. Asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize money or property that they think could be connected to some sort of illegal activity before you're ever convicted of a crime.

Normally punishment, whether it is prison time, community service, or a fine, comes after you've actually been convicted of a crime, but not under asset forfeiture laws. If police think you're using cash or property to fund certain illegal activities they can take it and keep it for their own uses and that's exactly what happened to one Staunton man.

Mandrel Stuart owned a barbeque restaurant in Staunton. For nearly two years his restaurant broke even and even starting to turn a profit - until a hot August afternoon in 2012. With Stuart planning a new location in Harrisonburg, he headed for Northern Virginia to buy some restaurant supplies. He was driving along Interstate 66 when he got pulled over.

"I see him coming up like he's going to pass. He doesn't pass. He just moves over and gets behind me, still driving. He puts on his lights, pulls me over,: Stuart said, “Wondering what have I done for him to pull me over, I haven't done anything.”

He wasn't speeding; in fact it was a video screen the Fairfax County officer ultimately cited as the reason for pulling him over.  Officers told Stuart to meet them at the Fairfax County Police Department. Dogs and officers searched his car and found more than $17,000 in cash that they confiscated. Officers left Stuart with just a piece of paper, a sort of makeshift receipt for the $17,000 seized. A reason why the money confiscated wasn't written down.

Stuart says the police did not find anything in his car and they did not offer an explanation of why they confiscated the money. "What'd they explain? They really didn't explain. They said it was a substantial amount, and they told me first that I didn't own a business - I was going over here to probably transpire to buy some drugs basically," he stated.

But Stuart says that was never the plan. "You can't buy restaurant equipment from somebody. You can write them a check, I guess, but cash - you can always negotiate prices, you know right there. You got cash on the spot, I can say ‘hey, you want $1,500 for this I'll give you $1,000 right now.'"

While Stuart's case may sound bizarre, it's actually pretty common. Under Virginia code, police can stop you and take "all money and property” they believe is connected to drug or other serious crimes. And like Stuart's case you don't even have to be convicted to have your money taken, just accused.

Frustrated with losing the money, Stuart hired attorney Shawn Stout. “They were allowed to hold that money for the whole year and a half while he was stuck trying to litigate the case,” said Stout.

Stuart's situation was complicated by police saying they found a minuscule amount of marijuana in his car and him admitting in an interview that he has smoked weed from time to time. But Stout said in this case what they found was “two little flakes of this green...could be oregano…could be anything.”

A federal jury in Alexandria only needed 35 minutes to rule not guilty on the drug allegations. But, by then, more than a year had gone by since police had pulled Stuart over.  Even though he got his money back, the financial damage to the barbecue business was already done.

“The government basically got to hold his money for a year and a half.  He didn't get paid interest on that and he should have.  His business gets shut down because of it and they're allowed to do this basically to anybody,” said Stout.

Law enforcement can take anything - according to state law there are no restrictions as to the type of property that may be seized. Virginia law allows about 90 percent of that seized money to go right back to the police agencies that seized the money or property in the first place.

“The law is such that the local police just have a huge incentive to take as much as they can,” said Stout.

Agencies in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley are cashing in. Records we obtained show that between 2013 and 2014 Albemarle County seized more than $21,000 in assets and got to keep more than $18,000 of that. In the same fiscal year the Augusta County Sheriff's Office retained more than $31,000 and the city of Charlottesville kept more than $12,000.

So far this year, police agencies statewide have gotten more than $4 million. Since this program started in 1990, police in Virginia have scooped up more than $97 million from these seizures. And if the seizure turns out not to fit the state laws, like in Stuart's case, police can still benefit.

"The local police or state authorities can then hand it off to a federal agency.  The federal agency then prosecutes that money in federal court and if they win the local agency gets up to 85 percent - I think - of the money,” Stout said.

This winter the General Assembly took a crack at reforming forfeiture laws in Richmond. Lawmakers passed a bill requiring police provide the accused criminal with an inventory of what they took. Governor Terry McAuliffe amended the bill when it arrived on his desk, saying police must return seized money or property until there's an actual conviction reached, but the state Senate killed that amendment. We went to our lawmakers to ask them what they think.

"There's a legitimate reason to seize certain things but you have to make sure it's pursuant to a process that's fair and recognizes people's rights," said 57th District Delegate David Toscano. "You really shouldn't be taking people's property without due process, and arresting somebody doesn't necessarily give you the right to seize their property."

"I think that was a disappointment but I think those that were working on the legislation.  In talking to them I think they're going to make an effort again next year,” said 25th District Delegate Steve Landes.

Police departments in our viewing area who we know take part in this program talked with us about it. Albemarle County police say about 90% of the seized funds are used for advanced leadership training. Without the funding, they would not be able to send our officers to these advanced schools.

Fairfax County Police issued the following statement: “The asset forfeiture program is designed to combat illegal drug distribution and seize assets and proceeds derived from illegal drug sales. Those seized funds are used to continue combating drug distributors who prey on users. Commonwealth Attorneys, state prosecutors and assistant United States attorneys review forfeitures conducted by law enforcement. If a seizure was improperly conducted it does not go forward. Civil hearings are ruled on the preponderance of the evidence.” 

As for Stuart, the money he lost proved to be too much. His restaurant, the Smoking Roosters, had to shut its doors. He says he hopes to get back into the food business some day.  He says he's still struggling to get back on his feet and he has a message for the police: "You all messed up my life. I had a good restaurant, a good business going and now I gotta go back to struggling and go back to construction, something I don't want to do. You took my dream way from me."
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