Man Sues Multiple DOJ Agencies For Failing To Return Seized Cash They Told Him They Had No Interest In Keeping

from the I'm-sorry-sir-but-the-system-is-only-programmed-to-receive dept

Civil asset forfeiture remains a garbage government theft operation. Always has been. Always will be. The government can just take stuff, make up a reason for taking it, and then hope a system that's deliberately complicated and expensive will prevent citizens from trying to reclaim their property.

In some cases, they can't even be bothered to make up a better reason than "government policy." And even when it's decided it's not going to keep the property, it still makes it almost impossible for its owner to retrieve it.

That's what has happened to Alaska resident Willie Cooks. The government took $60,000 from him at the Fairbanks Airport and, despite claiming it doesn't intend to pursue a forfeiture, has held onto the money for nearly 16 months.

Cooks is suing [PDF] to get his money back. The only reason it was taken from him was because he chose, perhaps unwisely, to carry it with him on a flight to Las Vegas, Nevada. That's where both the TSA and the DEA got involved.

Heading through the checkpoint, Cooks was stopped by the TSA. The TSA saw Cooks' money and informed the Airport Police Department. The APD questioned Cooks, took his money, and turned it over to the DEA. Why did all of this happen? Because policy.

Upon information and belief, TSA follows a practice, policy, or standard operating procedure of seizing, or causing to be seized by state or federal agencies, cash carried by travelers in an amount of $10,000.00 USD or more.

This policy makes only a limited amount of sense for international flights where travelers are required to declare amounts over $10,000. It makes no sense for a domestic flight from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Las Vegas, Nevada.

And the DEA took the money because that's also what it does (apparently automatically) when it comes across a certain amount of cash.

Upon information and belief, the DEA follows a practice, policy, or standard operating procedure of seizing, or causing to be seized by state or federal agencies, cash carried by travelers in an amount of $5,000.00 USD or more without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that any crime has been committed.

Cooks was not arrested. Nor was he even accused of committing any criminal act. His money was carried away by the DEA and a long run of government fuckery began.

On March 24, 2020 -- the day after the money was seized -- Cooks (via his lawyer) requested the money be returned. On May 11, the DEA issued a notice of seizure and the initiation of its forfeiture proceedings. Roughly two weeks later, Cooks submitted a claim form to the DEA.

On June 11, the DEA sent Cooks a response acknowledging his claim and saying "the matter has been referred to the judicial district noted above." There was no judicial district noted above. Cooks and his counsel tried to figure out what district was handling this but ran into dead ends. The few people they were actually able to reach provided no information or guidance.

No further information was discovered or provided by the government until January 28, 2021 when the US Attorney's Office of Alaska informed Cooks there were no pending civil or criminal forfeiture cases related to the seized $60,000. The Attorney's Office told Cooks to call the DEA to get his money back. After figuring out the DEA's Fairbanks office was no longer operative, Cooks got in touch with the DEA special agent in charge of his case who told him to call the US Attorney's Office to get his money back.

Additional convolution followed.

According to March 10, 2021, e-mail correspondence between AUSA Ryan Tansey and AUSA Kelly Cavanaugh, the US Attorney’s Office advised the DEA “to give the money back.” The e-mail correspondence revealed that the DEA claimed it no longer had control of the money and that the United States Marshals needed to be authorized to release the funds.

On March 11, 2021, AUSA Tansey advised the United States Marshals Service (USMS) that the USAO declined forfeiture and to “please return the funds.”

The funds were not returned. Meanwhile, everyone in the government keep getting paid for not doing the one thing requested of them.

On April 1, 2021, the USMS e-mailed AUSA Tansey stating, “Have you had any success in acquiring the letter Amy Welch mentioned that she received from DEA indicating funds would be returned to Mr. Cooks? I have an ACH form from him, but with no instruction in CATS to return these funds and DEA having no knowledge of the letter I cannot proceed so we were hoping she’d have a copy to provide.”

On April 12, 2021, Mr. Cooks responded to the USMS’s e-mail, attaching the prior communications from AUSA Tansey to the USMS to “please return the funds” and AUSA Cavanaugh’s e-mail to the USMS “We need to return it to the claimant. We did not pursue forfeiture.”

More nothing continued to happen. On April 28, Cooks emailed the AUSA and the Marshals Service asking for an update. He got one. The Marshals Service had now decided it was the DEA's problem to sort out.

On May 5, 2021, the USMS indicated “We are working to get these funds returned to you as soon as possible, but at this time we do not have the required documentation from the DEA yet.”

On May 25, the Marshals Service decided Cooks needed to fill out another set of forms to get his money back. He completed the new paperwork and returned it to the Marshals Service that same day. Another month passed with no return of his funds. Cooks approached the USMS again and (again) was told the problem was the DEA.

On June 22, 2021, the USMS responded “I have yet to receive official instruction from DEA instructing this return. I am still working with them to try and obtain this as there were a few hold ups on their end that have to be solved first.”

This was followed by messages from two AUSAs claiming no one in the US Attorney's office had CATS access so they were unable to speed this up. That's as inexplicable as the original seizure. CATS isn't something new and rare. CATS (Consolidated Asset Tracking System) has been in use since 1993 and is used by all DOJ components, including the DEA, US Marshals Service, and the DOJ's multiple US Attorneys Offices.

So, the government has held onto Cooks' money for 16 months despite clearly stating it has no interest in keeping it. Maybe this is just the side effects of the bureaucratic ineptitude often seen in sprawling organizations whose reach exceeds their grasp. Or maybe this is just the DEA hoping that if it ignores this long enough, it will be able to keep the money it already said it was going to return. Whatever the underlying reason, it's 100% bullshit. Hopefully the court will see this for what it is -- a government-ordained heist that didn't go quite as planned -- and get Cooks back his money along with some monetary damages for the rights violations and the months of screwing around by multiple government agencies.

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Filed Under: civil asset forfeiture, dea, doj, legalized theft, tsa, willie cooks


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 12:11pm

    Telling priorities for a pack of criminals

    Giving them the benefit of the doubt that this isn't just an attempt to wear the victim down to the point that they'll drop the matter as not worth it I find it telling that they had no problem stealing the money from him and that that part went smooth as silk but as soon as it comes to giving the stolen money back suddenly there's no clear method or person to talk to to do that, almost as though that was never a consideration and they're just making it up as they go along.

    If the system wasn't so grossly corrupt I'd say he should not only get every last cent back and any legal fees he might have racked up paid for but every single person involved in this theft should be required to personally chip in for punitive damages. Ten percent of the amount stolen per month the person has been deprived of their property would probably do the trick(so 160% and counting, or $96,000 on top of the original $60,000), as I imagine if their own money was on the line those engaging in blatant theft like this would be a lot more careful who they stole from and would be a lot quicker in returning the stolen goods.

    The ideal solution would be to shut down these robberies altogether but barring that at the very least the victims should be properly repaid for all the hassle they have to deal with to get their property back and those involved should be 'motivated' to do so as quickly as possible and punished for robbing people in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 2:28pm

    "Upon information and belief, the DEA follows a practice, policy, or standard operating procedure of seizing, or causing to be seized by state or federal agencies, cash carried by travelers in an amount of $5,000.00 USD or more without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that any crime has been committed"

    How someone can see "we reserve the right to take all the money you have on you even if we don't think a crime has been committed" and side with the DEA in this situation is truly beyond me. There's people literally demanding that companies be shut down entirely because their feelings were hurt when other users told them to GTFO of their conversation, but outright theft is worth defending.

    I'll be willing to put a Vegas bet on the fact that half the people claiming this is above board are the same people claiming that the fact that people are being held accountable for an attempted insurrection means that they're living in a police state, with no sense of irony.

    "It makes no sense for a domestic flight from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Las Vegas, Nevada."

    I mean, why would anyone take a lot of money to Vegas of all places? It's just a small desert town, there's nothing to do there!

    "So, the government has held onto Cooks' money for 16 months despite clearly stating it has no interest in keeping it."

    I'm sure that interest has something to do with it, though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 5:39pm

      Re:

      "the fact that half the people claiming this is above board are the same people claiming that the fact that people are being held accountable for an attempted insurrection means that they're living in a police state, with no sense of irony."

      But, But, its written right there. ITS THE LAW!!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 5 Jul 2021 @ 1:41am

      Re:

      It's almost as if the popular belief in the US that government is harmful, is in some ways rooted in fact.

      At least when an actual criminal holds a gun to your head and asks for your wallet or absconds your home electronics in your absence, insurance can come through for you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2021 @ 2:29pm

    Aaaand it's gone!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2021 @ 2:34pm

    Upon information and belief, the DEA follows a practice, policy, or standard operating procedure of seizing, or causing to be seized by state or federal agencies, cash carried by travelers in an amount of $5,000.00 USD or more without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that any crime has been committed.

    Why is this statement not seen as an admission of unconstitutional conduct? There's no law that says you can't travel with that much cash. They admit they do this without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. How could any judge see this as legal?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 8:23pm

      Re:

      Unfortunately, because of laws passed in the names of both the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" and questionable jurisprudence concerning the same, such seizures aren't considered unconstitutional.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Blhlls (profile), 3 Jul 2021 @ 11:51am

      Re:

      It isn’t an admission. It is an allegation in the Complaint. Not that it isn’t likely true, just unlikely they will admit it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2021 @ 3:19pm

    The money belongs to the government, it says so right on the bills.

    /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 4:46pm

    stating it has no interest in keeping it.

    Speaking of, he should also get back any interest on that amount that the government has also stolen from him.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2021 @ 5:40pm

    Willie Cooks: Where's my money.

    USMS: I have ACH form, but no instruction in CATS to return funds.

    Willie Cooks: What!

    CATS: All your cash are belong to us.

    Willie Cooks: What you say?!

    CATS: You have no chance to money, make your time.

    CATS: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 6:10pm

    Its a pity the laws are always written to punish the little people & not the government.
    If I stole my neighbors lawnmower they wouldn't let me say oh the other neighbor has to sign off on its return & I need more paperwork... they would arrest me take the stolen property & hold it until the trial was over then return it to the rightful owner.

    A simple solution would be forcing them to work in that whole "speedy" trial sort of way. Have penalties for them playing chase the ball through the system that doesn't seem to know what it is doing. But then in my mind the proper solution would be after 30 days with nothing happening, the amount to be returned doubles & keeps doing so.

    Once there is a penalty its amazing how they might stop just robbing people based on nothing more than how dare you have money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    charliebrown (profile), 2 Jul 2021 @ 6:27pm

    TSA: Why do you have $16,000 cash?
    Willie: I'm going to Vegas!
    TSA: Well we'll take that to make sure you don't loose it.
    Willie: I guess I'm not going to Vegas after all. Can I have my money back?
    TSA: Roll the dice and we'll see how it goes ....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2021 @ 6:20am

    Staff at the DEA had already stolen and spent his money.

    This was just "buying time" for another set of forfeitures to come in so they could illegally cook the books and hide the fact they'd stolen his money and it went into DEA staff personal bank accounts.

    This needs a full 100% independent audit of all related departments, employee bank accounts and assets.

    Mysteriously you'll find some DEA officers have a new car/house extension etc......

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2021 @ 6:23am

      Re:

      The process works as a "pass-through" similar to a Ponzi Scheme.

      Take 10k from citizen

      Steal 10k into personal bank account

      delay delay delay

      take 5k from citizen
      take 5k from citizen

      give original 10k back using those 2 5ks.

      Now delay delay delay the 2 citizens until MORE money comes in.

      Pretty much illegally robbing Peter to pay Paul.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bk12327, 8 Jul 2021 @ 12:55pm

    asset theft

    A smart judge would hand out arrest warrants like candy at a parade. Start locking people up until they agree to cut a check for the full amount seized; compound interest on that amount; lawyers fees; compound interest on those fees starting the day they were incurred; court costs; compound interest on those starting from the day and they were incurred. Oh, and since there were multiple agencies involved, the amount seized, the lawyers fees, and the court costs will be multiplied by 3, under the RICO statues. And if there's no check cut within 10 days, those people in jail until the moonmoney clears get automatically sentenced to 25 years in the state pen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MikeVx (profile), 8 Jul 2021 @ 9:39pm

    This article has been referenced by an attorney.

    Steve Lehto over at the Lehto's Law YouTube channel has posted a 13 minute video on this article.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teX6s4n2j48

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 10 Jul 2021 @ 8:41am

      Re: This article has been referenced by an attorney.

      Awww, you beat me to it.

      He has high praise for Techdirt, calling the site "excellent", and for Tim in particular. Sometimes he'll read a sentence, repeat one phrase for emphasis, chuckle, and say "great writing!"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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