Amy Sterner Nelson and Carl Nelson had different lives before the pandemic. The obvious things are obvious, but there are also less obvious options, such as the sale of their home and car, liquidating their retirement funds and moving their six-member family to Amy’s basement in West Seattle after they were seized by the FBI for almost $1,000,000 dollars.
Amy tells Amy that Amy and her husband changed their lives from one where they were working full-time to support our children to one in which we had to figure out what we would do month by month. It’s changed the way I believe in fairness.
The FBI took money from almost every part of the Nelsons world. This included the savings Amy had accumulated over a decade of practice as an attorney, and later her efforts to head The Riveter (the co-working start up she started). The FBI didn’t even know about it. SuspectedAmy was accused of any criminal act. It was Carl they were investigating—a probe that has not resulted in a single charge against him almost two years later.
In April 2020, agents showed up at the Nelsons’ home and informed them that Carl—a former real estate transaction manager for Amazon—was under investigation for allegedly depriving the tech behemoth of his “honest services.” They accused him of favoriting certain developers and making deals for them in return for illegal kickbacks. He claims that “that never took place” and it is precisely why he has fought so hard. It’s so simple.
The federal government’s conclusion on Carl’s allegations of fraud is unknown. It has been conducting a long investigation but has never brought about an indictment. The federal government did not need to do this, destroying the Nelsons’ home and community as well as their livelihoods, their safety, security, and future.
Even more frustrating is the fact that the FBI subtly admitted to not needing to perform any of these things to finish their investigation and to stop any alleged criminal operations run by Carl. The FBI agreed last week to settle: Amy and Carl would forfeit approximately $109,000 while $525,000 will be returned from the initial $892,000 FBI seized. The court has depleted any remaining funds.
Amy admits that it is difficult, and she’s trying to get back some of her assets through a GoFundMe. “None of our circumstances have changed.” “Not much has changed for us.” She points out that Carl still is a defendant against Amazon in a huge federal lawsuit. The deal was made so they could pay attorneys’ fees. Her words are “it feels like it’s the beginning of some justice.” Their case is one of justice that looks like losing thousands upon thousands of dollars.
They aren’t the only one. It was an Indiana man who had his car seized. Then there was the Kentucky carjacker. Also, the Massachusetts woman who had her car seized. The Louisiana man who lost his life savings was also seized. Also, the Texas man who had his life savings seized. The countless Californians who had their money, and other personal items taken. Sometimes the money is returned—often only when a defendant manages to lawyer up for a civil suit. Sometimes it’s only a small part. Sometimes all of it is not. Dan Alban is an attorney at The Institute for Justice (IJ), which handles cases similar to civil forfeiture. The government’s ability to do such things can clearly ruin lives. It can also ruin lives without any convictions or even charges.
Alban calls civil forfeiture a “high-pressure tactic.” This is one of the many tactics used by government to paralyze defendants, sometimes stripping them from their ability to stand up for themselves. Amy has experienced this firsthand. Amy says it gets complicated if one can’t pay for defense and food.
It is lucrative. According to an IJ report, the federal, state, and local governments have taken $68.8 trillion via civil forfeiture in the past 20 years. “The vast majority of seizures and forfeitures…are driven by the profit incentive,” says Alban. Police and prosecutors can keep as much as 100 percent of proceeds in most states, and federally. They have an incentive to seize and forfeit anything they find to supplement their budget. These assets are then transferred to police slush funds where they can be used for things such as parking tickets or submachine guns. Sometimes, they’re used for illegal purposes like Fitbits and gym equipment.
It’s not just the forfeiture that the Nelsons are feeling they’ve lost. Nor is it the only way the government tried to intimidate Carl into accepting their offer of help. Amy is the only one who cries during our conversation. She recounts the time she spent getting up at dawn to get her young children ready and then driving an hour each day to take them to the park. Carl wanted to know if he would surrender so that his daughters didn’t witness the indictment. The government declined.
Amy says, “Even speaking to you now Billy, now we have our cash back, and now that the government’s said that they don’t believe that these were proceeds from a crime,” she is afraid of reprisal. Because I’m afraid of anything. This is extremely scary.”