Thursday, October 6, 2016

Drug Dealers Can't Win the Lottery

Illinois law allows the Government to seize your property even if you have not been charged or convicted of a crime. This heavy-handed system is generally known as civil asset forfeiture. The Government only has show by a preponderance of the evidence (51% likely) that the assets in question are traceable to violations of certain laws. This relaxed burden of proof is much lower than that needed to convict someone of a crime, which is beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, millions of dollars of property are seized every year from people who are never convicted of any crimes, including $190,000 from two brothers in Aurora several years ago, neither of whom had a criminal record at the time

Even if a person admits to committing a crime, or is eventually convicted, the question then becomes what assets can be traced back to the criminal activity? Or put another way, how creative can the Government get in trying to squeeze someone for every penny? They got pretty creative recently when police officers in Macon County, Illinois raided a house and seized marijuana, cocaine, a digital scale, and a $3 scratch-off lottery ticket, which turned out to be a $50,000 winner. 

Predictably, the Government instituted civil forfeiture proceedings against the lump sum payout, or $35,315. The Government reasoned that the defendant was unemployed and had no source of income other than drug sales, so the $3 must be attributed to drug sales. The Government further reasoned that the $3 was actually worth $35,315 because it was in the form of a winning lottery ticket, so the whole amount should be for forfeited.  

Following trial, the trial court very logically ruled in favor of the drug suspect. The court ruled that the $3 probably came from the sale of drugs, but that the civil asset forfeiture laws were not intended to capture a windfall. The court stated "What if, for instance, some cannabis dealer had earned $10,000 selling cannabis, and he decided to he was going to put himself through medical school, earned a medical degree, and was out successfully working? Is his income then forfeitable? At some point, the connection has to stop."

Predictably, the Government appealed. The appellate court reversed the trial court. The appellate court found that the purpose of the forfeiture law was to deter people from drug trafficking and should be "liberally construed so as to effect their remedial purpose." The court then ruled that "all proceeds" traceable drug trafficking are subject to forfeiture, even if they are increased due to a windfall.