Rochester, New York, resident Cristal Starling was diligently saving money to turn her hot dog stand into a full-fledged food truck business when local police raided her home and confiscated her savings. The reason? Her then-boyfriend was suspected of dealing drugs. The agents found no evidence of her boyfriend’s alleged drug dealing, but they did find more than $8,000 of Starling’s hard-earned money—which they took and never returned to her, even after her then boyfriend was acquitted on all charges.
Like many other Americans, Starling is a victim of civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows law enforcement agencies to seize personal property on the mere suspicion that it was involved in criminal activity. After a lengthy appeal, a federal appellate court in New York has given her a shot at getting her personal property back. In addition, the court set a more just standard for victims of civil forfeiture who attempt to regain their property. This is a big win—both for Starling and for other Americans whose property is unjustly seized every year.
Since 2000, the government has seized more than $68.8 billion from Americans through civil forfeiture. When law enforcement suspects personal property is connected to a criminal act—whether the property is cash, jewelry, a car, home, or business—the agency seizes it and a prosecutor later moves for the state to keep it permanently.
As the court in Starling’s case highlighted, “all this is driven by incentive: The authorities can pocket what they can seize by forfeit.” In Starling’s home state of New York, law enforcement generated $19.7 billion in revenue between 2000 and 2018, and New York law enforcement agencies kept 60 percent, creating an incentive to seize more property and make it difficult for owners to reclaim it.