A West Virginia State Trooper used civil asset forfeiture to steal more than $10,000 in cash from a couple, but never charged them with any crime, after stopping them for an illegal lane change.
On June 9, Dimitrios Patlias received a warning for the driving infraction, but he and Tonya Smith, his 8 month pregnant wife, had $10,478, 27 gift cards they had collected, and a phone taken for no legitimate reason, reported The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
The couple was on the way to the Hollywood Casino in Jefferson County when they had their money taken by the officer.
Smith said the trooper made many wild accusations with no evidence. He accused them of smuggling cigarettes, having drugs in the car, and gift card fraud. After searching them, their car, and Smith’s purse, the officer took their money, gift cards, and smart phone, then let them go with a warning.
The couple ended up driving home with just $2 left.
“It was a disgusting way of being treated,” Smith, a nurse, said. “We work hard for our money.”
With civil asset forfeiture, officers can legally take anything they want, without due process or probable cause, and claim it may have been used in a crime. They need no evidence and do not even have to charge anyone with a crime. After taking people’s personal property, authorities file a motion in civil court to keep people’s property.
Because of this ridiculous law which legalizes highway robbery by police, there have been some weird cases in court:
The Charleston Gazette-Mail notes one particularly weird case:
In Morgan County, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Raymond Boyce initiated one case in circuit court, naming a Hyundai Elantra, an ignition key, a cell phone, a digital scale, and $523 in U.S. currency as respondents. In that case, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department received 90 percent of proceeds, and the prosecutor’s office received the other 10 percent, as per state code.
People have to incur legal fees, including attorney fees to challenge the theft of their items. It doesn’t even matter if there is no evidence against the person or if no charges were brought. The victim has to pay big money just for a chance to get back their own possessions.
Smith pointed out that this law can turn cops into thieves.
“To me, this law, now that I’ve learned of it, it turns police officers into dishonest crooks,” she said. “I feel like I was in a movie.”
After the Gazette-Mail asked state police about the seizure, and after weeks of Smith calling police, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney and local politicians, Smith said an officer returned their possessions in full.
Matt Harvey, the Jefferson County Prosecutor, said they had not moved forward with the legal work of forfeiture against the couple.
Patlias filed a complaint and a state police spokesman said there is an ongoing IA investigation.