Score another victory for property rights in America, specifically in Rochester, New York, where a resident won her case against the local government for swiping her hard-earned cash under civil asset forfeiture. This case is one of several that are cropping up, after several states have passed laws aimed at reforming the controversial practice.
Cristal Starling, a Rochester resident, recently reclaimed $8,040 that was seized from her home “as evidence” by local law enforcement after they arrested her then-boyfriend for supposedly committing drug offenses. The ordeal began about four years ago, when law enforcement executed a search warrant.
She had been trying since 2020 when Rochester police took that sum from her residence as evidence while executing a warrant against her boyfriend at the time. RPD would give the money to the DEA.
That man was arrested and charged and has since been acquitted… But Starling was never charged.
One of the attorneys at the Institute of Justice, working on her case, Will Aronin, told News 8 Friday she had been saving that money to grow her business.
Aronin explained that Starling did not have an attorney, and couldn’t respond to notices fast enough. Then he said the federal government tried to keep the money using civil forfeiture, even winning a 2022 decision.
After the state-sanctioned theft, Starling initiated what would be a years-long legal battle to regain her property. Finally, she won her battle, but she noted that while she was “happy” to have her money back, the government should do more. “I also deserve to paid interest,” she told reporters.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that empowers local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to seize assets that they deem to be connected to criminal activity. The practice, also known as “Policing for Profit,” has been heavily criticized for creating the potential for abuse – especially since it does not require a victim to be charged with a crime. As with Starling’s case, the process to retrieve their stolen items from the state can be long and costly, often requiring the services of an expensive attorney.
In Starling’s case, she was represented by the Institute for Justice, who went to bat for her. Her case, like others, also reveals that even in states in which civil asset reform laws have limited the practice, local law enforcement agencies still have a workaround called the “equitable sharing program.” This policy allows local and state law enforcement to hand seized money and other assets over to a federal agency, the DEA in this case, and receive a kickback in the form of 20 percent of the earnings.
While the DEA opted to return the money that was taken from Starling, her point about interest is a valid one. She had planned to use the money to invest in her business, but the state-sanctioned theft made it even harder to do so. It seems feasible that she could have lost out on business opportunities because of the actions of law enforcement.
Starling’s case is one of many that underscore the personal toll that Policing for Profit can have on ordinary Americans. In many cases, it constitutes a clear violation of Constitutional rights, and that can have a horrific impact on people’s lives. This practice cannot be fully reformed until it is addressed at all levels of government. If the federal government keeps the equitable sharing program loophole in effect, it might not matter as much if states pass legislation limiting the practice.