Vegas News

EDITORIAL: Carrying cash shouldn’t be a crime

Assembly Bill 425, which would add Nevada to the list of states that have addressed civil forfeiture inequities, remains alive in Carson City after earning an exemption to a recent legislative deadline. Lawmakers should turn their attention to a pending legal action in Arizona that highlights yet again the importance of such reform.

Last August, Jerry Johnson took a business trip from his home in North Carolina to Arizona. According to his attorneys, Mr. Johnson, the owner of a small trucking company, was exploring the possibility of buying a third Peterbilt truck for his business from a Phoenix-area auction house. He brought cash for the potential sale.

When Mr. Johnson went to collect his bags at Sky Harbor Airport, he was greeted by an inquisitive Phoenix police officer who had received an anonymous tip. The officer asked Mr. Johnson if he was carrying large sums of cash — which is apparently now a crime. Mr. Johnson told the officer about the purpose of his trip and showed him the $39,500 he had stowed in his luggage.

What happened next won’t be a surprise to those who are familiar with forfeiture abuses. Court filings reveal that the officer attempted to lay the groundwork for his actions by claiming the cash smelled of marijuana. According to Mr. Johnson’s appeal, the cop then pressured him to either sign a “disclaimer of ownership of currency form” — allowing the police to take the currency — or face money-laundering charges.

Mr. Johnson signed the form, and the police pocketed his money. He was never charged with any crime.

To make matters worse, a local judge later denied Mr. Johnson’s effort to contest the forfeiture, ruling he had failed to prove that the cash the police grabbed was his despite bank statements and other evidence. That decision is on appeal.

Mr. Johnson does have a history of drug crimes. He served time in federal prison for distributing cocaine. The civil forfeiture complaint alleges that the cash “was used or intended to be used to facilitate a transaction involving prohibited drugs,” that it “constituted proceeds of a transaction involving prohibited drugs” and that Mr. Johnson “was transporting and concealing the existence and nature of racketeering proceeds knowing or having reason to know that they were proceeds of a racketeering offense.”

But the fact that Mr. Johnson has made mistakes in the past certainly doesn’t give law enforcement carte blanche to rob him of any cash he may be carrying on a mere suspicion. And if Mr. Johnson were involved in “raceketeering” involving “prohibited drugs,” why didn’t the police arrest him and charge him with such crimes? The failure to act in that regard speaks volumes.

The incident mirrors similar abuses in Nevada, particularly the high-profile 2013 case near Winnemucca in which a sheriff’s deputy stopped a driver for speeding and proceeded to confiscate $50,000 he found in the vehicle. Like Mr. Johnson, the driver was pressured by the officer to either sign a form yielding the cash or face escalating consequences, in this case the seizure of his vehicle.

AB425 would demand that law enforcement file criminal charges before it can initiate forfeiture cases against low-level drug suspects. It’s a common-sense and equitable reform that balances constitutional protections with the goal of ensuring that criminals don’t profit from their illegal enterprises.

Jerry Johnson’s predicament should remind Nevada lawmakers that a system which allows law enforcement to seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables from people who are never charged with crimes undermines the vital principles of due process and property rights and serves as an incubator for corruption and injustice. Passing AB425 would be a big step forward.

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