07/23/2009

Judge Orders Money Seized in Traffic Stop Returned to SPLC Client

 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has won the return of almost $20,000 to a Latino migrant farmworker whose money was taken by police during a traffic stop in Alabama despite criminal charges never being brought against him.

An Alabama circuit judge dismissed the case and ordered the money returned to Victor Marquez. The actions came after the state refused to provide documents and information to SPLC lawyers representing Marquez.

A Loxley, Ala., police officer confiscated the money during a May 2008 traffic stop, claiming it was drug money.

"This traffic stop was nothing short of piracy," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "In the end, Loxley authorities apparently thought it was better to return Mr. Marquez's hard-earned money than to open their practices to public scrutiny."

The state failed to comply with the SPLC's first request for information and documents related to the case and others like it. After the SPLC asked the court to force the state to comply, prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss their case. Circuit Judge Charles C. Partin granted that request on July 17.

After a season of harvesting beans in Florida, Marquez was traveling on Interstate 10 to Mexico so he could start construction of a house on land he had earlier bought. He carried his legitimately earned savings, along with those of a brother, who also worked in Florida.

A police officer stopped the truck in which Marquez was a passenger "for failure to maintain a marked lane." The officer claimed there were reasons to suspect the cash was related to illegal drug activity. The money was confiscated even though Marquez was not arrested or charged with any crime, and no evidence of illegal activity was produced.

"It's an insult that they say this is drug money," said Marquez, a legal permanent resident. "My brothers and I worked hard in the fields to earn it."

Marquez's plight wasn't unique. News reports have highlighted the growing — and lucrative practice — of local law enforcement agencies using civil "asset forfeiture" laws to seize money and other valuables from motorists. Under these laws, those whose assets are confiscated must prove in court that their money was not connected with illegal activities — reversing the presumption of innocence found in criminal cases.

Law enforcement agencies have a strong incentive to take property. Agencies working federal cases get to keep 85 percent of what they confiscate. The Marquez case fell under Alabama law, which also allows local law enforcement agencies to keep about 85 percent of what they confiscate. This means that from a single traffic stop the law enforcement agency could have netted about $17,000 of Marquez's money had the police been successful.

Federal records show that during the four years prior to 2008, the amount of assets seized by local law enforcement agencies tripled — climbing from $567 million to $1.6 billion, a National Public Radio investigation found. This doesn't include assets kept by these agencies as part of state asset forfeiture programs.

In light of these programs, one Texas state senator told NPR that the law enforcement culture in the South has become "addicted to drug money."

"Victor Marquez is fortunate," Bauer said. "He will get his money and the opportunity to build the home he's always wanted. But there are many other innocent motorists — often people who are Latino or African American — who are victimized and cannot find or afford lawyers to get their money back."

A noted specialist in forfeiture cases, Richmond, Va., attorney Jason Wollitz, worked with the SPLC on the case.