Saturday, May 22, 1999

Suit seeks to recover seized money

Clermont man says police thought it was drug cash

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Clermont County resident Shawn Simpson sued Cincinnati this week, claiming city policy makes it unconstitutionally difficult to recover money mistakenly seized during drug arrests.

        Attorney Stephen R. Felson asked a federal judge to certify Mr. Simpson's suit as a class action because so many people have been victimized by overzealous police.

        Money used in — or meant for — drug deals can be confiscated and kept by law-enforcement agencies. Persons who say their money was taken mistakenly can seek its return, going to court if necessary.

        Mr. Felson and co-counsel Robert B. Newman said their client was arrested by Cincinnati police on July 10 when he bought some marijuana.

        Mr. Newman said the seller per suaded officers that Mr. Simpson, of Ohio 232, New Richmond, was really the dealer.

        Assuming the $5,241 found on Mr. Simpson was drug money, officers confiscated it.

        Mr. Simpson's role became clear and he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $25 fine.

        Mr. Felson said Mr. Simpson's cash came from a personal injury settlement six days earlier.

        When Mr. Simpson sought its return, Cincinnati had given the cash to the FBI.

        If his suit fails, the FBI will return about 80 percent to the city and keep the rest.

        Mr. Simpson's suit, filed in U.S. District Court, says this city practice of using federal agencies to put money out of easy reach violates the Fourth Amendment ban on illegal seizures and the 14th Amendment right to due process.

        Mr. Felson and Mr. Newman said Cincinnati does this because it is much easier to recover money in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court than from federal authorities.

        That need not be true, an FBI spokesman said.

        Forfeiture in Ohio requires a felony conviction, but federal law requires only probable cause that the money was involved in drug dealing.

        On the other hand, the Justice Department has informal procedures which an “innocent owner” can use to claim seized funds, and Mr. Felson said the government has not responded to those approaches.

        The suit asks Judge Herman J. Weber to declare the city's practice unconstitutional and to award damages and attorney fees to Mr. Simpson.

        No one at the city solicitor's office could be reached for comment and Edwin H. Boldt, the agent who supervises forfeiture cases for the FBI in Cincinnati, said he had not seen the suit.


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- Suit seeks to recover seized money