No Charges, But Savings Confiscated

Driving through Alabama with a lot of cash is not a crime. But for migrant worker Victor Marquez, it might as well have been.

Marquez was traveling to his hometown in Querétaro, Mexico, to pay for a retirement home when a police officer pulled over the truck in which he was riding and decided to confiscate almost $20,000, claiming it was drug money.

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 wages and savings, along with that of a brother, who also worked in Florida.

On May 5, 2008, a Loxley, Ala., 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, but Marquez was not arrested or charged with any crime.

Nine days later, the district attorney's office for Baldwin County asked the circuit court to issue an order forfeiting the money to the state for law enforcement purposes.

"This is the worst thing that has happened to me in almost 20 years I have been here as a farmworker in the United States," Marquez said. "It's an insult that they say this is drug money. My brothers and I worked hard in the fields to earn it."

Marquez said he spent nine years saving the money to build a home in Querétaro, where most of his family lives.

"It will be a long time away before I can retire, but it has always been a dream of mine to have my own home in Querétaro to go to when I am no longer working," he said.

Citing racial profiling and a violation of his constitutional rights, the SPLC is representing Marquez as he tries to recover the money.

Marquez's case raises serious questions about whether statutes allowing law enforcement agencies to keep a portion of the money they confiscate provide incentives to target Latino workers who might be carrying cash.

Agencies Keep Cash
Agencies working federal cases get to keep 85 percent of what they confiscate. The Marquez case falls 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, if successful, could net about $17,000 of Marquez's money.

As of 2008, federal records show that during the past four years, the amount of assets seized by local law enforcement 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.1

In light of these programs, one Texas state senator said the law enforcement culture in the South has particularly become "addicted to drug money."2

1. Seized Drug Assets Pad Police Budgets, National Public Radio, June 16, 2008, 2. Id.