MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Along this country's highways leading to Mexico, law enforcement is looking for cash - dirty money, drug proceeds headed south. Last year, authorities seized $1.6 billion in assets, according to the Justice Department; that is triple the amount of four years ago. Most of it is real drug money, but today we're going to hear about two men - drivers who had their money taken away from them - when there were no drugs found, no arrest, no criminal charges, and scant evidence. Critics call it highway robbery with a badge.

Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: Under the law of the land, the authorities can confiscate your money without ever charging you with a crime as long as they can prove it's tied to illegal activity or, as we're about to hear, even if they can't.

Mr. JAVIER GONZALES: As I was driving south on 281, I noticed a dark bluish purple, unmarked car that was, I guess taking radar. He basically got behind me and followed me for a while.

BURNETT: On October 20, 2005, Javier Gonzales, a 30-year-old used car dealer in Austin, was driving south on U.S. Highway 281 to Brownsville, he says to look at a car and buy a gravestone for his dying aunt. He was carrying $10,032 in a briefcase.

About 90 miles north of the Mexican border, two officers of the Jim Wells County Task Force pulled him over for driving without a front license plate.

Mr. GONZALES: He asked me to get out of the car. I did. He asked me for a driver's license and insurance. I gave it to him. He asked me if I had any weapons, drugs, or large amount of money, and I told him I did.

BURNETT: The police video shows Gonzalez wearing baggy shorts with a shaved head, standing beside a Mazda. The incident report states the deputies grew suspicious when Gonzalez and his passenger both appeared nervous and then a drug-sniffing dog alerted on Gonzales. The deputies took them in for questioning and searched the car. They couldn't find any drugs or weapons. And though Gonzalez showed them a credit card printed with the name of his car lot, the officers didn't believe him.

Mr. GONZALES: He suspected that we're using that money to go up south to buy drugs.

BURNETT: The deputies handed Gonzalez a waiver. If he signed over the money and did not claim the currency, he could walk away free. If he did not sign the waiver, he would be arrested for money laundering. Javier Gonzalez signed the waiver and gave up the right to his money.

Mr. GONZALES: So that's how we got in our car and we left, still trying to figure out what just happened. We got officers that took our cash. We got officers that told us we can't get an attorney. So I'm thinking, are these guys officers of the law? Did I just get robbed of my money?

BURNETT: To understand the context to this case, Jim Wells County, named for an old political boss, has one of the most successful and aggressive highway interdiction programs in the state. In the last four years they've seized more than a million and a half dollars, primarily off of U.S. Highway 281, a prime smuggling ground for drugs going north and money coming south.

Captain RAY ESCAMILLA (Jim Wells County Sheriff's Office): Mainly we've been working southbounds for the money and weapons that are going back to Mexico.

BURNETT: But mainly the money. the office wall of Captain Ray Escamilla of the Jim Wells Sheriff's Department is covered with pictures - not of dope busts but of piles of confiscated cash.

Capt. ESCAMILLA: October 2001, 105,000. November 2003, 99,000. October the 8th, 2004, 668,000.

BURNETT: By seizing money from cartel couriers, the sheriff's department - once underfunded and poorly equipped - now can rely on drug assets for a third of its budget.

Capt. ESCAMILLA: We've helped the schools - cops in school, vehicles. I think every year we've bought from three to four vehicles, all of our equipment, our guns, high-powered rifles, are all bought with forfeiture fund.

BURNETT: But has Jim Wells County become so reliant on seizing drug money, a dependency that NPR has found with police agencies elsewhere in the South, that it's shaking down innocent motorists? Again, Captain Escamilla.

Capt. ESCAMILLA: You don't want to just take it from any John Doe, the money, you know what I mean? If you can't prove that it's been a criminal activity, reasonable suspicious, probable cause, you know, you don't want to take it because you going to look bad in court.

BURNETT: And that's just what happened in the Javier Gonzalez case - it looked bad in court. Gonzales hired an attorney who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. The county fought it and lost. In April, Jim Wells County returned his $10,032 and paid him $110,000 in damages plus attorney's fees.

Mr. RON BARROSO (Lawyer) I believe that a lot of these stops are fishing expeditions, nothing more.

BURNETT: Ron Barroso was a long-time criminal defense attorney in nearby Corpus Christi who practices asset forfeiture law.

Mr. BARROSO: They figure they stop enough people out there that they can profile, for whatever reason, you know, sooner or later they're going to hit on something.

BURNETT: Civil forfeiture is different from criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the taking of property is usually carried out after the owner is convicted of a crime. In civil forfeiture, the government sues the property - in this case the currency - without ever charging the person with a crime. The government must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the money is dirty; then it's up to the owner to prove that his cash is clean. San Antonio attorney Michael McCrum, a former federal prosecutor and police officer, says he believes the system is tilted against the property owner.

Mr. MICHAEL McCRUM (Lawyer): The laws are made now such that anybody that has cash seized for them, it really - the burden of proof shifts over to the person whose money is seized to prove that it's legitimate money. And frankly, a lot of people don't want to do that, even though they're not involved in drug trafficking. A lot of people don't want to declare that they have a lot of cash for reasons not related to drug trafficking.

BURNETT: Which leads us to the second case, that of Christopher Hunt, a 28-year-old African-American who owns an auto detailing business in Atlanta. Here the facts are more complicated than the Gonzalez case. On September 2nd of last year, Hunt was driving south on Interstate 75 through central Georgia, he says on his way to see his mother in the town of Dublin. Hunt was wearing his hair in braids and driving a friend's orange Dodge Charger, a sexy muscle car. Two deputies with the Lamar County Sheriff's Office pulled him over for speeding.

(Soundbite of video clip)

BURNETT: The police video shows the deputies and Hunt standing beside the Interstate arguing. The incident report states they became suspicious when they saw that Hunt had a licensed handgun lying on the console. He had bloodshot eyes, his hands trembled, and he and his passenger gave evasive answers when questioned. But what really got their attention was the $5,581 he had stuffed in his pockets, which he said was the weekend profits from his business.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Unidentified Man #1: Look man, here's the deal. We're going to take this money into our possession.

BURNETT: The deputy: Look man, here's the deal. We're going to take this money into our possession, okay?

Hunt, angrily: Oh no, I'm not giving you the authority for you to take that money into your possession.

The deputy, emphatically: I'm taking the money.

And he informs Hunt they'll take it back to the department to count it.

Chris Hunt stands inside his small shop in a suburb of East Atlanta, where a worker prepares to apply film to a car window.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HUNT: They just told me that it looked like drug money. That was all. That was actually what he told me.

BURNETT: Did he find any drugs in your car?

Mr. HUNT: No drugs, no alcohol, no charges.

BURNETT: Did they write you a ticket for any traffic violations?

Mr. HUNT: No tickets.

BURNETT: Did they arrest you for any offense?

Mr. HUNT: No arrest.

BURNETT: The U.S. Attorney's Office in Macon, Georgia has now initiated proceedings to forfeit Chris Hunt's money based on probable cause that it is proceeds traceable to a controlled substance. Here's what they've got on him: The deputy smelled burnt marijuana. The deputy observed, quote, "an untestable" amount of what appeared to be marijuana on the floorboard. And drug dogs hit on the currency when it was brought back to the station.

NPR examined Chris Hunt's criminal record and found one five-year-old arrest for possession of ecstasy. The case was later dismissed. The prosecutor apparently did not think it was important enough to include it as evidence. So the question arises: Why is the U.S. government trying to take Chris Hunt's $5,581? The federal prosecutor refused to comment because the case is pending. He has offered to return half of Hunt's money, but Hunt's attorney, David Crawford, says they want all of it back, and they're considering a civil rights lawsuit.

Mr. DAVID CRAWFORD (Lawyer): It's an abuse of power and we're not going to let them hide behind their police powers and, you know, the legal system. We're going to keep pursuing this until we get justice and justice is 100 percent.

BURNETT: Again, Chris Hunt.

Mr. HUNT: It was my hard-earned cash and they just - they had guns and badges and they just took it. If I had been a drug dealer, I would just, you know, left them and just let them have the money and take it to the station.

Mr. DAVID SMITH (Lawyer): I can tell you that I never see a complaint like this filed in the eastern district of Virginia.

BURNETT: NPR showed this case to attorney David Smith of Alexandria, Virginia. He's former deputy of the Asset Forfeiture Section in the Justice Department and an author of two volumes on forfeiture law.

Mr. SMITH: In fact, even if they had loads of evidence, they would probably hesitate to file a complaint against $5,000. It's a waste of time. But to file it when there's so little evidence, as in this case, is really striking.

BURNETT: NPR examined 14 other federal currency forfeiture cases from Lamar County, Georgia over the past four years. In some of the them, the drivers had prior felony convictions for narcotics. But there are other cases similar to Chris Hunt's. The government is confiscating the money because the car smelled like marijuana. The deputy said they acted nervous, they were carrying a wad of cash, and a drug dog alerted on it. David Smith concludes...

Mr. SMITH: Something's rotten down there. I can tell you that.

BURNETT: Forfeiture abuse is nothing new. In the 1990s, the media carried horror stories of police running roughshod over the rights of innocent property owners. It led to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, CAFRA, that was supposed to raise the government's burden of proof before it could seize a person's property. The government maintains those reforms worked, safeguards are in place, and individuals can challenge a seizure - just as Javier Gonzalez and Chris Hunt did. Scott Bullock disagrees. He's senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a public interest libertarian law firm in Washington.

Mr. SCOTT BULLOCK (Attorney, Institute for Justice): I think a lot of people thought that after the passage of federal reform law that most, if not all of the problems with civil forfeiture law were solved. And I just simply - I don't think that that is the case.

BURNETT: David Smith helped write the CAFRA reform a decade ago.

Mr. SMITH: There's still a lot of abuse. There are large parts of the country where prosecutors can get away with bringing bad cases because judges tolerate them.

BURNETT: And the reason you don't hear about more abuses, he says, is because a person has to hire a lawyer to challenge a forfeiture, and a lawyer often charges more than the amount of the seized cash. The chief of the asset forfeiture section of the U.S. Department of Justice is Richard Weber. He was asked if these cases troubling. They're insignificant, he answered, compared to the thousands of traffic stops where major drug money couriers are busted.

Mr. RICHARD WEBER (U.S. Department of Justice): What's troubling to you? That a drug trafficker who's bringing money from the United States to Mexico, who's carrying hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars in cash in their pickup truck, who just sold dope and crack and cocaine to children in your playgrounds, and his money is being taken away? That troubles you?

BURNETT: The officers who make these traffic stops on highways across America are the frontline of the nation's war on drug money. Among the most successful is an Alabama deputy sheriff named Eddie Ingram.

Deputy Sheriff EDDIE INGRAM: And if you get money, God bless America. That's a wonderful. You know? But that ain't what our sole purpose in life is.

BURNETT: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, meet the $11 million patrolman. John Burnett, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can hear the first installment in our series on asset forfeiture with a primer on dirty money at npr.org.

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