Last week, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reinstated a district court order, forfeiting $144,320.00 from motorist Tina Beers, while reversing the judgment of Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal. Notably, Louisiana’s Supreme Court saw probable cause to order a forfeiture pursuant to a narcotics trafficking/proceeds theory without evidence of drugs or drug paraphernalia, without a conviction or even charge–let a alone a drug conviction or drug charge, and without any presented history of drug activity. The Supreme Court of Louisiana listed the use of rubber bands, plastic shrink-wrapping, use of a compartment to hide the currency, an alleged positive alert from a dog trained to detect drugs, travelling West on U.S. Interstate 10, nervousness, a lack of plausible income or explanation for the money, an initial willingness to disclaim the currency (which Ms. Beers maintains was under duress), and the speculations of a State Trooper to connect the currency to the drug trade.
Obviously, Tina Beers may have been up to some illegal activity. And, perhaps the forfeiture of the currency prevented some unknown crime that somehow protects society from some unknown ill. Still, it is difficult to see how Louisiana’s Supreme Court connected the currency to drugs specifically. Rather, drugs seem, here, to serve as a catch-all for unknown illegal activity–which might include drugs. That’s a dangerous way to run a legal system. It is especially dangerous in Louisiana.
Louisiana employs a unique, possibly unconstitutional, system wherein drug forfeiture proceeds are divided between the courts, prosecutors, and participating law enforcement agencies.
Proceeds of property forfeited pursuant to Louisiana’s Seizure and Controlled Dangerous Substances Property Forfeiture Act are deposited into a Special Asset Forfeiture Fund, which is administered by local district attorneys’ offices. After paying off any outstanding security interests or liens on forfeited property, district attorneys may deduct costs (“all proper expenses of the proceedings for forfeiture and sale, including expenses of seizure, maintenance of custody, advertising, and court costs”) from forfeiture revenues before divvying up net profits between the courts, prosecutors and participating seizing agencies:
“(a) Sixty percent thereof to the law enforcement agency or agencies making the seizure, such proceeds to be used in drug law enforcement, including but not limited to reward programs established by such agencies.
(b) Twenty percent thereof to the criminal court fund.
(c) Twenty percent thereof to any district attorney’s office that employs the attorneys that handle the forfeiture action for the state. This shall be paid into the district attorney’s twelve percent fund to be used for public purposes including, but not limited to use for prosecution, rewards, support and continuing legal education in furtherance of this Chapter, and in regard to Chapter 4 of Title 40 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes of 1950.” La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 40:2616
The danger that claimants cannot access a fair and impartial process before incentivized courts is heightened further by the fact that Louisiana courts are generally under-funded–often woefully–and often rely on fines, forfeitures, and fees to conduct judicial business. That conflict of interest is fundamentally unfair to claimants and defendants alike. Furthermore, it undermines popular faith in the judiciary–even where judicial agents are perfect, sagacious angels. And when they aren’t perfect, it predicts trouble.
Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reinstated a district court’s judgment of forfeiture against Nathaniel White’s 2002 Chevrolet Trail Blazer and reversed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal of Louisiana.