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College Student Fights To Reclaim Life Savings Seized by DEA In Civil Forfeiture

Charles Clarke had $11,000 taken from him by the DEA at an airport but was never charged with a crime.

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A college student has teamed up with the Institute for Justice to reclaim $11,000 that was taken from him at an airport by the DEA. University of Central Florida student Charles Clarke was never charged with committing a crime, but law enforcement officials have kept his savings using the practice of civil forfeiture.

Between late 2013 and early 2014, Clarke had been spending time with relatives in Ohio while his mother, with whom he had been living, was in the process of moving to a new apartment in Florida. Before he left his Florida home, he decided to bring his entire savings with him. His savings totaled $11,000 in cash, saved up over five years by collecting money from various jobs, gifts from relatives, financial aid, and educational benefits received due to his mother’s status as a disabled veteran.

Clarke said he brought the money with him because he worried about losing it during the move while he was away. He also said that the bank he uses has few branches, which could limit access to his money.

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“I didn’t think it was a crime to carry cash, and it was mine so I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to with it,” he said.

Clarke arrived at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport in February 2014 to head back to Florida. After checking his bag, Clarke was approached by law enforcement officials who said the bag smelled like marijuana.

Clarke acknowledged that he was a recreational marijuana user and had smoked marijuana before arriving at the airport. Clarke insisted that he was not in possession of marijuana and was not a drug dealer. No drugs, paraphernalia or illegal items were found in any of Clarke’s bags but his money was seized regardless.

In addition to his money, Clarke said his phone and his iPad was also taken from him.

According to the Institute for Justice:

“Under a federal program called equitable sharing, state and local police receive up to 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds in exchange for referring seized property to federal authorities. Under this program, 13 different law enforcement agencies from Kentucky and Ohio are seeking their cut of Charles’ money, even though 11 of those agencies were not involved in the seizure.”

Before teaming up with the Institute for Justice, Clarke had been fighting without an attorney to get his money back. Civil forfeiture grants law enforcement agencies the ability to seize money or property based purely on suspicion that the money or property is connected to an illegal activity, with no criminal charges required.

In contrast to criminal proceedings, targets of civil forfeiture must provide proof of innocence in order to regain their property, rather than the government being forced to prove guilt of a crime to justify the seizure.

“Once it’s seized and gone through the seizure process, it’s very difficult to reverse that,” said former DEA Special Agent Finn Selander.

Clarke said the $11,000 was “to use for my living expenses, my everyday needs, to keep maintenance on my car and for future savings. And now it’s gone.” He said that after his money was taken, he has been fearful of keeping cash on him.

“Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Charles,” said IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty.

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