Cristal Starling’s home in Rochester, New York was raided in October 2020. Officers seized “all of the cash that they could find”. Then, she found out that she would have to pay and attorney half of what the DEA seized. She chose to fight herself in hopes of saving the money that she had been saving for food stand.
Cristal Starling, like so many other non-lawyers that get caught up in the United States’ broken legal system, never got her say in court even though she was never arrested or charged with any crime. Her money is still gone.
Rob Johnson, a senior attorney and Daryl James, a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia report that “the Rochester Police raided Starling’s apartment in the middle of the night with a warrant because they suspected her then-boyfriend of dealing drugs. Starling was home at the time with her then-boyfriend and grandnephew, a child who relies on Starling as his primary caretaker and legal guardian. Starling’s then-boyfriend was criminally charged but acquitted after a jury found insufficient evidence that he had done anything wrong. Yet, even after the verdict, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency held on to $8,040 taken from Starling’s apartment, including $550 taken from the pocket of a pair of Starling’s pants. The entire amount belonged to Starling, not her then-boyfriend, and she was planning to use the cash to convert her hot dog stand into a food truck. Yet the DEA sought to keep the money permanently, using civil forfeiture, a process that allows law enforcement agencies to take ownership of assets without establishing anything beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Because the costs of hiring a lawyer is so high and sometimes exceeds the amount of money that the government seizes, most people end up walking away and just cutting their losses say Rob Johnson and Daryl James explained.
Others they say, “challenge the government and often lose because they must provide multiple documents and meet multiple deadlines, and they can lose by default if they commit a single error. Starling faced an extra layer of complexity because local police transferred her money to the DEA, using a maneuver called equitable sharing. The process forces property owners to navigate federal rules”.
“The federal government keeps at least 20% of the proceeds, local agencies get up to 80%, and property owners get zero”. Luckily for Ms. Starling, the Institute for Justice agreed to represent her for free because every American citizen should “have a chance to appear before a judge at the trial court level — something that should happen in every case before the government deprives a person of property” said her lawyers.
Original report written by Rob Johnson & Daryl James
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