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Grave Injustice from the Eighth Circuit

Submitted by smorgan on

This week’s most depressing story is that of Emiliano Gonzolez, an immigrant who consented to a police search only to have his life savings confiscated. The Eighth Circuit upheld the seizure even though Gonzolez was never even charged with a crime:


On May 28, 2003, a Nebraska state trooper signaled Gonzolez to pull over his rented Ford Taurus on Interstate 80. The trooper intended to issue a speeding ticket, but noticed the Gonzolez's name was not on the rental contract. The trooper then proceeded to question Gonzolez -- who did not speak English well -- and search the car. The trooper found a cooler containing $124,700 in cash, which he confiscated. A trained drug sniffing dog barked at the rental car and the cash. For the police, this was all the evidence needed to establish a drug crime that allows the force to keep the seized money.

Gonzolez’s behavior sounds suspicious until you give him a chance to explain it:

Associates of Gonzolez testified in court that they had pooled their life savings to purchase a refrigerated truck to start a produce business. Gonzolez flew on a one-way ticket to Chicago to buy a truck, but it had sold by the time he had arrived. Without a credit card of his own, he had a third-party rent one for him. Gonzolez hid the money in a cooler to keep it from being noticed and stolen. He was scared when the troopers began questioning him about it. There was no evidence disputing Gonzolez's story.

Only by reading the ruling itself can you fully appreciate the amount of evidence the court ignored before upholding the seizure. The court even admits that the testimony of Gonzolez and his witnesses is “plausible and consistent”, but nonetheless concludes that:

"...while an innocent traveler might theoretically carry more than $100,000 in cash across country and seek to conceal funds from would-be thieves on the highway, we have adopted the common-sense view that bundling and concealment of large amounts of currency, combined with other suspicious circumstances, supports a connection between money and drug trafficking."

The problem here is that forfeiture laws target the money directly, without addressing the guilt or innocence of the suspect. This case, for example, is bizarrely titled United States of America v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency. Forfeiture cases require a mere "preponderance of the evidence", which means that the court only has to be 51% sure you did something wrong in order to take everything you own.

Yet even this government-friendly standard appears unmet here. Gonzolez’s evasive answers during the traffic stop are easily attributable to his difficulty with English and his obviously valid concern that police might confiscate his money if they knew about it. The fact that a drug dog alerted on the money is insignificant since 80% of U.S. currency contains drug traces. He had a one-way ticket because he intended to drive home in a truck, and he had someone else rent the car because he couldn’t rent without a credit card.

A policy that ignores reason condemns itself to the inevitability of injustice against the innocent. Even if the Eighth Circuit truly disbelieves Gonzolez, these judges must surely recognize the ease with which law-abiding citizens could be rendered helpless under this doctrine.

The truth won’t always help in court, but Flex Your Rights helps prepare you for traffic stops. If Gonzolez had known to refuse the police search and keep quiet instead of lying, he might have avoided this mess entirely.

Good additional coverage at The Agitator and Crime & Federalism.

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