Police raided Cristal Starling’s apartment in Rochester in New York in October 2020. They seized $8,000. Starling wasn’t charged, but Starling may not see the money again because she missed a deadline in the complex process of challenging the seizure.
Starling lived in Starling’s apartment, one of the two places Rochester police visited while looking into her boyfriend who is suspected of selling drugs. Starling was not found with drugs but the police did take Starlings money. Police can take property that is suspected to be connected with criminal activity under civil asset forfeiture laws. Starling’s former boyfriend was charged with drug possession in a second raid of the same investigation. He was later found not guilty.
Starling runs a food stand and claims she was trying to save money for a food truck so began fighting the seize without any legal representation. Starling was able to recover her car, but she believed that since there were no criminal charges in her case, she would soon be able to return her money.
She got an unpleasant surprise. She was notified by the Rochester Police Department she would be receiving money from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). However, her notice to the Justice Department stating she wanted to challenge the forfeiture had been filed. But she missed a federal deadline, so the government may have to take her money.
After a judge rejected Starling’s request for an extended deadline, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, announced this week that it will file an appeal on her behalf, arguing that people like Starling should have greater opportunity to challenge government seizures.
Rob Johnson, senior IJ attorney said that people “deserve their time in court”, especially since the government took their property and never charged them with any crime. Press Release.
Starling wrote letters asking for an extension to court, claiming that she was on vacation at the time the Justice Department had supposedly informed her about the deadline.
Starling: “I did everything necessary to claim my currency from the moment it was stolen.” Write. “These actions include filing a petition to the Department of Justice on December 17, 2020…and a claim on January 15, 2021…. The actions were initiated in response of correspondence. These filings were not the only ones I made. In fact, the court appointed the district attorney to oversee the case. This led to the confiscation of these funds several times. The case would not be closed until funds were released. This defendant was cleared of all charges. I have started to pursue the matter to return my currency.
Although federal courts grant some latitude to individuals representing themselves in court, the U.S. district Judge found her responsible for not meeting the deadline and gave a default judgment in favour of the government.
U.S. District judge Charles Siragusa said in a written statement that “the Court acknowledges Claimant’s lack of legal training is a handicap to her knowledge about the civil forfeiture regulations.” Order by February 3“But Claimant’s decision to not seek out an attorney’s advice was a matter ‘within. [her]Reasonable control’, which is against an excusable neglect finding.”
Starling learned hard the hard way asset forfeiture laws permit police to seize property without a accompanying criminal prosecution. The process to challenge the seizure tilts in favor the government. People find it difficult to follow the complicated process of getting their money back, even if they don’t need an attorney. Starling’s victory would likely have been negligible.
Seth Young of IJ said that “the process for getting money back from a forfeiture is complex” and was nearly impossible to follow without legal representation. “Cristal tried her best to comply with the instructions, but she never got the chance she deserved in court.”
More than half of U.S. states have passed some form of civil asset forfeiture reform over the past decade because of cases like Starling’s.
IJ now AppealStarling’s behalf, to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Starling will appeal the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. If Starling is successful, she will return to the district court to contest the seizure.
Starling filed also LettersIn court she said that the federal prosecutors tried to resolve her case by allowing half of the money to be returned.
Starling: “My question was to them if I had lost all rights over the entire amount of currency..and it’s in default. Why would you offer half of it back?” Submitted Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.
This is an intriguing question. The federal prosecutors would have to believe that Starling was a drug dealer in order for Starling to be allowed half of the money. These settlements are not uncommon. Federal prosecutors expect that people will evaluate the legal fees and time involved in challenging a forfeiture to decide to minimize their losses.
It is more suitable for a mafia or the kleptocracy rather than for a government that serves the citizens.