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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  1. 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?


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