They fought the law. Who won?
Many drivers faced a long ordeal in court to try to get their money back from police
Mandrel Stuart and his girlfriend were on a date driving on Interstate 66 toward the District when a Fairfax County police cruiser pulled out of the median and raced after them. The cruiser kept pace alongside Stuart’s old blue Yukon for a while, then followed behind for several miles before turning on its flashing lights.
The traffic stop on that balmy afternoon in August 2012 was the beginning of a dizzying encounter that would leave Stuart shaken and wondering whether he had been singled out because he was black and had a police record.
Over the next two hours, he would be detained without charges, handcuffed and taken to a nearby police station. He also would be stripped of $17,550 in cash — money that he had earned through the Smoking Roosters, a small barbecue restaurant he owned in Staunton, Va. Stuart said he was going to use the money that night for supplies and equipment.
The reason for the police stop: Stuart’s SUV had tinted windows and a video was playing in his sightline. He was never charged with a crime, and there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But police took his money because they assumed it was related to the drug trade.
Stuart would have to fight the federal government for any chance of getting his money back.
“Why didn’t he just give me a ticket?” Stuart asked the prosecutor. “What was the reason for him harassing me as much as he did?”
Stuart’s case is among 400 seizures from 17 states examined by The Washington Post to assess how the practice known as “highway interdiction” has affected American drivers. Their experiences, gleaned from legal papers and interviews, contain striking similarities that underscore questions about police power in an era when security has often trumped the rights of individuals.
Many of the highway officers involved were trained in the techniques of interdiction after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, some with financial support from the departments of Homeland Security and Justice. The officers were able to seize cash and have their departments share in the proceeds through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Police can also make seizures under their state laws.
Their methods often involve the use of minor traffic infractions as pretexts for stops; an analysis of “indicators” about drivers’ intentions, such as nervousness; a request for warrantless searches; and a focus on cash. In most of the cases, police never make an arrest.
Some of the drivers had prior run-ins with police and lived their lives in cash economies, paying for everything from food to rent and business expenses with hard currency. Many of them had to engage in long legal struggles to get their money back after officers made roadside judgments about one of the most fundamental of American rights — the right to own property.
Police say the stop-and-seizure tactic hurts drug organizations and increases security on the highways. But drivers and their advocates say that all too often it is the innocent who suffer the emotional and financial consequences of misplaced power.
“We have been fighting this battle for a number of years . . . but it is just breathtaking to hear what is happening on a grand scale,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties group in Arlington. “It should not exist in a country that respects fundamental notions of due process.”
A cracked windshield
In several of the cases reviewed by The Post, police claimed to smell drugs before searching vehicles but did not turn up any. That’s what happened to Vincent Costello, a home-improvement contractor, and his girlfriend, Romilda Demartino.
It was May 2010 and the couple were traveling from Queens in New York to Florida. They were stopped on U.S. Highway 17 by a sheriff’s deputy in Charleston County, S.C., who said Costello’s work van had a cracked windshield. Deputy Mason Ashby asked them a series of questions about their travels before bringing up the matter of currency.
Ashby is among 88 deputies in the department who have been trained in methods promoted by Desert Snow, the nation’s leading interdiction training firm. Ashby’s boss, Capt. Ransom Williams, moonlights as one of Desert Snow’s trainers.
Costello told Ashby the couple had visited a relative and were heading to Pompano Beach, Fla., to fix up a house they had bought in foreclosure. As Ashby listened, he claimed he noticed the odor of marijuana. Based on his “training and experience,” Ashby decided Costello was probably involved in criminal or drug-related activity and sought a search of the van, according to court records.
“Why would [they] give anything back if they thought you were guilty?” —Vincent Costello, who agreed to accept a deal from the government for half of his money back.
Ashby asked how much currency was in the van. Costello gave a low-ball estimate of $5,000 to $10,000, records show. He agreed to a search because he believed he had done nothing wrong, he told The Post. Ashby did not find any drugs, but he turned up more than $32,000 in the van and seized it through the federal Equitable Sharing Program.
Ashby called a fellow deputy who was assigned to a regional U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force. The second officer asked Costello why he didn’t leave the money in a bank. Costello said he needed it to buy supplies to fix up the Florida house. In court papers, the police justified their seizure by claiming that Costello was unusually nervous. They also said that Florida is a source of drugs for New York and that drug smugglers often use large amounts of cash.
Costello told The Post he could not believe that Ashby and his colleague disregarded the fact that they found no marijuana in the van. Before the couple were permitted to leave, Ashby made Costello hand over the money in his pocket, Costello said.
“He turned around and he says, ‘Give me the money out of your back pocket,’” Costello said. “I said, ‘What if the car breaks down?’ The guy has such an attitude with me. He said, ‘You have a debit card. Go find an ATM.’ ”
When Costello said he was not leaving without a receipt, the deputy pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote down the sum he was taking: $32,934.
Department officials did not return calls seeking comment about the stop.
Costello hired a local attorney to get the money back. After making a few calls, the lawyer told him to accept a deal from the government for half of the money. Costello agreed. But his legal fees were $9,000 — leaving him with only about $7,000.
None of it makes any sense to him.
“Why would [they] give anything back if they thought you were guilty?” he said.