by Charles Platt
Recently I was talking to a criminal attorney who handles a lot of drug cases. I asked him this question:
In the state of Arizona, how much cash can I carry without worrying that the police may take it away from me?
I often drive on Interstate 40, which is regarded as a “drug running corridor.” Anyone who is pulled over for speeding may have his car inspected for residues by a drug-sniffing dog, and if the dog has a cold that day, or just happens to be in a bad mood and feels like barking for no reason in particular, you have a problem, regardless of whether there are actually any drugs in your car.
This indeed was the fate of a single male driver who, according to a local newspaper, failed the dog test near Flagstaff earlier this year. A thorough search revealed no drugs on his person or in his vehicle, but he was carrying around $100,000 in cash. Since this was considered a “suspicious sum,” it was taken from him by the police under the laws of civil forfeiture. He was then free to proceed on his way, without being charged with any crime.
Clearly, I should not carry $100,000 in cash. But how much can I carry? How about $5,000? This is not a hypothetical question, because if, say, I want to buy a second-hand car from a private seller on eBay, and the car is in another state, I might certainly want to carry $5,000 with me.
My attorney had to think about this for a moment. “Well, I think $5,000 is probably okay,” he said finally. But he didn’t sound entirely confident about it.
This of course is by no means the worst fallout from the War on Drugs. The huge prison population of nonviolent offenders is a much bigger source of concern to me. Still, I did find it sobering that I have to think twice before carrying more than $5,000–not because I’m afraid of being robbed by a criminal, but because I’m afraid of being robbed by the police.
I note that the Institute for Justice is doing its best to draw attention to civil forfeiture laws, and may deserve our support.