Police confiscate serious cash from trucker, but fight leads to new law

By Bob Unruh

(Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay)
(Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay)

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A trucker who flew into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport with $39,500 in cash with the intention of buying a semi-truck – only to have police confiscate the money – not only has won an appeal in his case – he’s also being credited as the incentive for a new state law protecting citizens’ cash.

The Institute for Justice, which has a record of fighting for consumers in such cash confiscation cases, said this week the Arizona Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of Jerry Johnson.

The decision will allow him to challenge the government’s decision to confiscate his cash, and in fact, the ruling said he’d already documented his ownership.

“In August 2020, Jerry flew to Phoenix with the intention of returning home with a semi-truck from an Arizona auction house, but instead he returned to Charlotte without his money and without a truck. Even though he was never charged with a crime, an Arizona trial court ruled that Jerry failed to prove the cash was his and, therefore, could not contest the civil forfeiture of his money,” the IJ explained.

“Today’s decision points out the obvious: Jerry Johnson properly proved ownership of his money and has the right to defend it in court,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “The scales are already tipped in the government’s favor in civil forfeiture, but the lower court went outside the bounds of Arizona law when it forced Jerry to prove his own innocence. We are glad that Jerry will have his day in court to defend against the unjust forfeiture of his life savings.”

In civil forfeiture cases, government agents simply confiscate cash or assets – usually cash. But they often don’t file any charges against the owners, who are forced to go to court to prove the “innocence” of their money to get it returned.

Often that doesn’t happen, and the agencies that confiscate the money get to divide it up.

The state court in Arizona, however, found, “This was a not a trivial or technical error.”

It found the lower court violated Jerry’s right to due process.

“The decision further affirms that ‘Johnson in fact proved he owned the money,’ granting Jerry a complete victory on his appeal,” the report said.

There’s still some process to endure. The government could appeal further, and if it does not, the case will be sent back to the trial court, where the government will either have to prove that Jerry’s money was connected to criminal activity or return it, the IJ said.

“It’s wrong that I could lose my money even though I’ve never been charged with a crime. Losing my savings has been hard on my trucking company; it kept me from expanding my vehicle fleet at a critical time during the pandemic. But it’s a big relief that I’ll have a chance to get my money back,” he said.

Because of the attention given to the case, “the Arizona Legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 2810, a bill to reform civil forfeiture that Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law,” IJ reported.

The changes require a conviction in criminal court to forfeit property in civil court in most instances and ban officers from coercing owners into waiving or relinquishing their rights to property.

The IJ said its program already has fought similar cases in New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Ohio and more.

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