JOHN KIRIAKOU: Robbed by Law Enforcement

People who have never even been charged with a crime can have their life savings taken away. That’s civil asset forfeiture. 

A Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at John Glenn Columbus International Airport, 2019. (Michael Ball, CC0, Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I am a fan of bad television.  I admit it.  I even DVR it.  I watch an awful show on the National Geographic Channel every week about Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and how they intercept drugs and birds and food and other contraband from people arriving from abroad into the airports of New York, Atlanta and Miami. 

I was watching an episode this week where an elderly Korean man arrived at JFK airport in New York with a few hundred dollars in his pocket.

For no apparent reason, he was pulled into secondary for a more comprehensive search.  When the CBP officer went through the man’s wallet, he found four cashier’s checks, dated years earlier, that totaled $136,000.  The man said that it was his life savings, he had been carrying it around for years, and that he had forgotten that the checks were on him. 

Tough luck, CBP said.  The money belongs to the government now.  That’s civil asset forfeiture.

The man was never charged with a crime.  But he still loses his life savings.  That’s the way we do things in the United States.

Harvey Miller

Harvey Miller is known in the music industry as “DJ Speedy.” He’s a serious player in the music world, having worked with Beyonce, Jay-Z and other top pop stars. He is a wealthy and successful entrepreneur and entertainer. He also happens to be African-American.

Miller was driving recently from his home in Atlanta to his second home in Los Angeles. A sheriff’s deputy pulled him over in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, for “not using his turn signal a full 100 feet before changing lanes.”

The deputy asked Miller what he was doing in Oklahoma. Miller said that he was a professional musician and he was on his way to his home in California. The deputy said that the story sounded “suspicious” and he asked if he could search the car.

Miller, who had no criminal record, refused. “No, you can’t search my vehicle,” he said. “What warrants you to search my vehicle?”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection conduct a dog training exercise in Baltimore in 2017. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Glenn Fawcett)

The cop wasn’t finished with Miller, however. He called in a K-9 unit; a K-9 “sniff” isn’t the same as a “search,” according to the Supreme Court. No permission — or warrant — is needed.

The cops claim that the dog “alerted” for possible drugs and they searched the car. Miller protested that he has never used drugs, he hadn’t been drinking and he had never been arrested. He had never broken the law.

The cops found no drugs. They did, though, find $150,000 in cash, which they seized, claiming that the money “smelled like marijuana.” They also claimed that of the $150,000, one $20 bill was fake and they arrested Miller.

He spent 12 hours in the county jail and was released without charge in the morning.  But the cops kept the money, and they’re not giving it back.

Keeping the Money

This is not an unusual occurrence. 

  • Tan Nguyen won $50,000 in a Las Vegas casino in 2013. That same night, he was stopped for driving three miles over the speed limit. When the cop saw the $50,000, he confiscated it. Nguyen sued. It took a few years, but he finally got his money back.
  • New Jersey man was stopped for a minor traffic violation in Monterey, Tennessee. When the cop found $22,000 in the car, he seized it. The driver proved to the cop that he had active bids on eBay and that he was on his way to purchase a car that he had successfully bid on. The cop submitted his report, but never mentioned anything about eBay or a car purchase. The driver did not get his money back.
  • Alda Gentile was stopped by police while traveling through Georgia on a house-hunting trip to Florida. The police searched her car for drugs and contraband, but found none. What they did find was $11,530 in cash that Gentile intended to use to buy a house. They seized it. She told a local news outlet, “I didn’t know it was illegal to carry cash. They made me feel like a criminal.”

(Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals)

The Supreme Court, unfortunately, has ruled that civil asset forfeiture is perfectly legal.  But there have been some lower court decisions and executive branch actions that could force Congress to address the issue, which is wildly unpopular among voters and rife with police abuse. 

In August 2021, the Justice Department agreed to pay Keddins Etiennes, an independent filmmaker, a $15,000 settlement and to return to him $69,000 that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had seized from him. 

Etiennes was passing through JFK with $69,000 tucked into a broken Xbox.  He declared the money to DEA and CBP and said that he put it in the Xbox because he was shooting a documentary “in some shady neighborhoods” and he wanted to hide it from potential thieves.  He didn’t think it would be DEA thieving from him. 

After hiring an A-list Los Angeles attorney, DEA offered him 90 percent of the money back.  Etiennes refused.  In response, the Justice Department began investigating his finances, and it finally accused him of “structuring,” a crime whereby a person deliberately evades bank reporting regulations by making cash deposits or withdrawals of less than $10,000. 

Etiennes wasn’t intimidated, and he told the Justice Department that he would fight them.  Just before the deadline for filing a case against Etiennes, the Justice Department dropped the investigation and returned his money.  The process took eight months.

On the heels of the Justice Department’s decision on Etiennes, the state of Maine became the fourth state in the country — along with New Mexico, Nebraska and North Carolina — to require criminal conviction before any property may be seized. 

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, said, “It’s a very simple concept; you don’t lose your property unless you used it in the commission of a crime.” 

Lee McGrath, senior counsel for Maine’s Institute for Justice, said the new law “ends an immense injustice and will ensure that only convicted criminals — not innocent Mainers — lose their property to forfeiture.”

I frankly don’t care what the Supreme Court says about civil asset forfeiture.  It’s morally and ethically wrong.  It’s stealing.  It’s abusive.  The law has to be changed. 

I’m glad that four states have done the right thing.  But that’s not good enough.  Congress must take action immediately to end this injustice. 

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

20 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Robbed by Law Enforcement

    June 23, 2022 at 19:35

    Today’s reprehensible police practice of civil asset forfeiture as described in this article was actually outlawed in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was in force in America until 1783. It affirmed, “That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void” under common statute law.

    Also in that document are some of the other reasons cited for removing James II from power, because under his rule “excessive bail hath been required of persons committed in criminal cases to elude the benefit of the laws made for the liberty of the subjects; And excessive fines have been imposed; And illegal and cruel punishments inflicted…All which are utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm.”

    We are long overdue for a “Glorious Revolution” of our own. Let us hope it will be as bloodless as England’s was in 1688.

  2. Realist
    June 23, 2022 at 18:59

    I’ve been reading or hearing about this outrage for at least 30 years when 60 Minutes first did a story on it. What is most ugly about the practice is that it’s mostly the poor or people of modest means who most frequently get victimized by this particular style of armed robbery. And it usually involves their life savings they are transporting to make the purchase of their lifetime–a home, a business or a new car. The cops are highly skilled at recognizing just plain folks of all races and creeds who may be carrying cash (it must be part of their training) and then wantonly stop them on the flimsiest of pretexts and perpetrate grand theft on those who can least afford it. The ultra-rich don’t deal in cash or even credit cards. Their recognizance alone gives them entre to anyplace, anything, anytime, anywhere. And, if they did carry a huge wad of cash, it would not at all matter. Would Tiger Woods, Michael Jordon or Jeff Bezos be fleeced by the cops if they were found carrying a check for a million dollars? Get real. Jordan used to carry that much cash on the golf course to cover bets. Whatever our “celebrities” or oligarchic overlords may fleetingly fancy is simply given to them much of the time. That custom is not just the prerogative of the local mafia “godfather.” The United States of America is simply the most evil, deceitful, immoral shit pile on the planet, if for no other reason than it constantly gloats about being the opposite–god’s gift to humanity, the epitome of perfection in the universe and an absolute heaven on earth–in spite of all the blatant contradictory evidence. It wins on hypocrisy points alone! Those who hunger and thirst after justice will never satiated in this life, not in this country.

  3. Richard Coleman
    June 23, 2022 at 15:21

    Like I say all the time, There Is No Law, the Law Is A Fraud. What There Is, Is Power. Power Trumps* Law Every Time.

    *No pun intended, but there it is.

  4. LeoSun
    June 23, 2022 at 13:26

    IT”S Social Murder!!!” DECEPTION. DESTRUCTION. DEATH. Straight outta Joe “Commando-N-Thief” Biden’s Standard Operating Procedure Manual, simply trickled down.

    “Everything Joe Does, is CRIMINAL: i.e., “THE FREEZING & CONFISCATION of MONEY OWNED by AFGHAN CENTRAL BANk; and, BY EXTENSION, Ordinary AFGHANS— has simply compounded the injustice that has already taken place.”

    FEBRUARY 11, 2022…“In an executive order issued in February, Biden ordered half of Afghanistan’s $7 BILLION (billion) in banking reserves to be set aside for some future undetermined use on behalf of the Afghan people, while ordering the other half to be used to settle lawsuits previously leveled by victims of 9/11 against the Taliban.

    The fact of the matter is that these reserves are the Afghan people’s money.

    The confiscation of these funds has meant that ordinary Afghans, already reeling from the collapse of the former government, are now facing a liquidity shock that has left many unable to withdraw cash or perform even basic financial transactions.

    The impact of all this has devastated the country, already one of the poorest on Earth. The United Nations now estimates that roughly half of Afghans are currently facing acute hunger.

    No Afghan was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and if their money remains frozen, especially at a time when they are suffering from war, poverty, and drought, it will worsen their conditions. The financial resources of ordinary Afghan citizens do not belong to the Taliban.”

  5. June 23, 2022 at 11:03

    The USG does the same thing to other countries with impunity.

    As to the article, certainly not kosher to take money before conviction but some alternative to simply taking the money would be appropriate. People carrying large amounts of cash would make cops suspicious given that money generally is taken or given electronically.

  6. William Rice
    June 23, 2022 at 11:01

    Asset Forfeiture is simply unconstitutional. It should not be used in any state.

    • June 23, 2022 at 12:15

      Asset Forfeiture is simply a license for government officials to steal property.

    • June 23, 2022 at 12:19

      It’s interesting that the tradition of Asset Forfeiture (aka legal government theft) was inherited from the British Maritime Law during the colonial period and after the American Revolution was used to finance most of the federal government during the early years.

  7. June 23, 2022 at 10:52

    I have never heard of this, and I’m horrified. This is plain and simple theft by the government, and it should be illegal. What really chilled me? ‘”Structuring”, a crime whereby a person deliberately evades bank reporting regulations by making cash deposits or withdrawals of less than $10,000. ” Where does that leave those of us who are middle or working class? I make cash withdrawals of far less than $10,000 all the time!

  8. June 23, 2022 at 10:41

    Thank you John, for putting a light on this gestapo-like practice.
    Now let us all stand and recite the Pledge of Allegience.

  9. Vera Gottlieb
    June 23, 2022 at 10:38

    Once a thief…always a thief.

  10. June 23, 2022 at 10:08

    What isn’t properly explained in this piece is the legal argument for unlimited civil asset forfeiture; there must be such an argument. Before we can successfully argue for a national response, we need to know why forfeiture is allowable in the first place. I, fortunately, live in New Mexico, but motorcycle-adventure around — often in the past in the deep south where there is greater risk — with cash enough to handle emergencies.

    • Bushrod Lake
      June 24, 2022 at 09:21

      The argument would include the USG prefers one use electronic transfers, credit cards, etc. because they can track these, The IRS definitely requires information on all sales to calculate capital gains, and doesn’t have to take the tax payer’s word.
      So, in a surveillance state large cash transaction become illegal.

  11. Barney Fife
    June 23, 2022 at 09:54

    I was once on a road trip as a working engineer, visiting a long list of sites, with many miles of car travel in between. A hot way to spend a summer, but fortunately I do like to travel and see the world. During this, I happened to drive the highway between the Texas oil fields and Louisiana casinos. I got pulled over for doing a few miles over the speed limit, and suddenly the pigs wanted to search my car.

    I knew some lawyers who always advised refusing such requests, but in this case I knew I was in a rental car and there was nothing in my car except my clothes, a book I was reading, a half bottle of cheap wine left over from the night before in New Orleans when I wasn’t reading my book, and a big box of the engineering plans of the sites I was to visit. So, I agreed to the search, thinking there was nothing they could find.

    Which meant I spent about half an hour watching a couple of confused pigs dig through a box of engineering plans that were obviously Greek to them, and with time to think about what was going on. After awhile, the pigs admitted defeat, and I packed up my plans and headed on my way.

    But I’d had a chance to think about it while watching pigs stare at papers they could not understand. The key was that I was on the highway between the Texas oilfields and the LA casinos. Thus, what the pigs were looking for was either a) oil workers going to the casino loaded with cash, often from friends who’ve asked them to place a bet for them. Or better, b) the lucky souls who had beaten the odds and the casino and then managed not to blow their cash that same night, and were heading home with a big, lucky wad of money.

    These pigs I ran into were really thieves looking to steal such money … because being a worker in America and actually having cash is very suspicious, and a pig needs beer and liquor money for his next pool party behind the house he couldn’t possibly afford on a pig’s lawful salary.

    I was recently watching David Simon’s latest AT&T cop show …. it showed a scene in Baltimore, where the courts can not find a jury for a trial, because so many people have been robbed or beaten or had loved ones killed by the po-lice that it is very hard to find 12 people to whom this has not occurred, and thus the courts can’t find even 12 people willing to believe the word of a po-lice in a trial.

    Welcome to America. But that’s ok, another $50 billion to Ukraine will solve all our problems, at least that’s what the Progressives tell us.

  12. Stephen Chaplin
    June 23, 2022 at 08:21

    Mr. Kiriakou – Very interesting article, but I wish you had mentioned the legal basis (as well as a citation) for seizing money.

    ~Steve, Richmond VA

  13. Altruist
    June 23, 2022 at 04:14

    What kind of country is this?

    Looks like the police in the USA have become latter-day highwaymen. Seems worse than in remote parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. That’s the great “democracy” as opposed to “authoritarianism”?

    Was the Supreme Court, in approving civil forfeitures, at all aware of the fifth amendent prohibitions of depriving persons of property without due process of law or taking private property for public use without just compensation?

  14. Carolyn L Zaremba
    June 23, 2022 at 01:10

    One of the reasons I hardly ever carry more than $20 in cash..

  15. Dave
    June 23, 2022 at 00:57

    Guess who guided the “asst forfeiture” law through to law?

    Joe Biden
    “The Comprehensive Forfeiture Act fixed all of these problems. The new bill was introduced by Senator Joe Biden in 1983 and it was signed into law the next year. With this law, federal agents had nearly unlimited powers to seize assets from private citizens. Now the government only needed to find a way to let local and state police join the party.”

    • jo6pac
      June 23, 2022 at 12:14


    • Valerie from Australia
      June 24, 2022 at 05:16

      Figures! Uncle Joe is the definition of the banality of evil.

Comments are closed.