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April 6, 2012

Did you know that in the United States, a large enough amount of cash can be a defendant in a federal case?

For example, a person leaving the country with $10,000 or more must declare how much he has, or risk losing it.  And if the government seizes it, and takes it to court, the owner is not the defendant.  The cash is!  And that’s the one of the least stupid things about forfeiture laws.  The government actually has the ability to seize people’s property and NOT charge them with a crime, if they suspect it was gained from a crime or used to commit a crime (i.e. if they feel like it).  The U.S. Marshals currently manage about a billion dollars worth of property that they’ve seized.

Funny thing is, $10,000 is about the point where it might be worth it to fight an asset forfeiture in court.  Any less than that and the cost of fighting it is greater than the cost of whatever’s at stake.  This is a dangerous trend, not just in America but a lot of places–the verdict is almost irrelevant.  The outcome could never be as bad as putting your life on hold and paying for a lawyer.  By the time you’re done, you are ruined regardless.

What reminded me of all this is United States v. $35,131 which is making the headlines mostly because the judge wrote an amazing decision.  Homeland security goons tried to trick people into falsifying forms about how much cash they were carrying.  See, they were headed to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and you really gotta have currency there.  So they took all their money, divided it up amongst each other in the form of cash and traveler’s checks, and tried to go through customs.

The conversation went like this: “How much cash are you carrying?”  “I don’t know.”  “Guess.”  “About $20,000.”  “OK, sign this paper saying you have about $20,000.”  Then he signs the paper, then they search him and his family and find out he was carrying about $35,000 (he was never given the opportunity to count it), so they take it all.

Then make him go to court for the *chance* to get it back.  Disgusting.


This is the conclusion of a long term, businesslike view of the law.  If they seize $10,000 or more fifty times, and only one out of those fifty can challenge them, they still come out ahead even if the one case goes as badly as possible.  Justice never enters the thought process.  It is treated like an investment.

The judge’s decision really is awesome though, worth a read.


A more cheerful subject later?  Perhaps.  It is Good Friday after all.

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