A 24-year-old college student named Charles Clarke was about to board a flight to Florida last year when police officers searched his bag and seized his life savings of $11,000.
Clarke wasn't charged with any crime, but over a year later, the police still have his money. There are no plans to return his cash.
"I was scared, it was a ton of emotions going through my mind," Clarke explained to Business Insider. "I didn't know what to do or what was going to happen; I just knew I was losing my life savings and that I wouldn't have anything when it was gone."
Clarke's nightmare unfolded in February 2014, when police approached him and told him that his checked bag smelled like marijuana. The bag had a lot of cash in it, he says, because he was visiting family in Cincinnati while he and his mom were in the process of moving, and he didn't want to lose the money.
Even though Clarke was a recreational marijuana smoker at the time, police found no drugs or drug paraphernalia in his bags. They still seized the cash they found there.
He offered up his carry-on bag as well to prove that he wasn't traveling with drugs and was not committing any crimes. The police kept the money anyway. He is currently working with the Institute for Justice to fight for his money back in federal court.
Police seizure of cash and possessions is becoming more and more common. And even though it's not a crime to carry large amounts of cash, it's perfectly legal for police to seize the money without first charging somebody with a crime.
Through a legal doctrine called civil forfeiture, police can seize cash or property if they suspect it's tied to an illegal activity — even if the owner isn't even charged with a crime.
The seizure of his $11,000 was a jarring experience for Clarke, and one that has caused undue financial hardship for the college student, who said he struggles to make ends meet. Clarke, who attends the University of Central Florida, says he saved for years, working in various jobs, and accumulating educational benefits due to his mother's status as a disabled veteran.
But all that saving, at least for now, has gone to waste.
Renée Flaherty, one of Clarke's attorneys, says that civil forfeiture laws incentivize police seizure of cash and property as state and local police receive a percentage of forfeiture proceeds in exchange for referring seized property to federal authorities. She also believes that the laws disproportionately hurt low-income and minority citizens, as they are less likely or unable to fight back.
The Institute for Justice is fighting to end civil forfeiture nationwide. "Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs," Flaherty said.