The Washington Post recently ran an editorial denouncing the treatment of Victor Ramos Guzman and the process by which Mr Guzman and the parishioners of his church, Nuevo Renacer, were relieved of their money by the Virginia State Police. We recommend the editorial but would like to add some commentary and a few clarifying details based on the accounts relayed to us.
On November 1st, Victor Ramos Guzman and Jose Jeronimo Sorto were driving a rental vehicle on Interstate 95. Their church had raised money to buy a trailer and a parcel of land. Guzman and Sorto were transporting $28,500 in church donations to make the purchases on behalf of Nuevo Renacer.
They were pulled over on I-95 by a Virginia State Trooper, CL Murphy, after the officer ran parallel to them. The trooper did not issue any tickets or warnings to Guzman or Sorto. However, the trooper asked if they had anything in the car. They informed him of the church donations. Trooper Murphy checked their papers, legal status, rental information, et cetera. Having found no violations, the trooper also called the FBI and ICE. The FBI declined involvement. The officer confiscated the cash and issued a receipt for it.
Guzman and Sorto were told by Trooper Murphy that the seizure was being executed “on order of ICE” but that no ICE agents were available because they were in a meeting. Guzman asked that they contact the church to verify their account of the currency trooper Murphy declined to do so and, apparently, told them to shut up. They were also told that they would be contacted by ICE Norfolk.
Having not been contacted by ICE or the Virginia State Patrol, the church contacted attorney Claudia Flower on November 4th. Flower contacted the state police and ICE. ICE, at that point, declined involvement. Later that day, Flower was able to talk to CL Murphy. Flower inquired of the probable cause for the seizure and was told
1) The members stated that the cash was not theirs but belonged to the church.
This wouldn’t seem to be such a problem as they also told officer Murphy that they were members of the church (Guzman being the Secretary of the church), transporting the money for the church, and possessed and showed a 501(c)(3) IRS letter of recognition for the church.
2) The church was located in Baltimore MD, while the address of the individuals was in Virginia.
Which wouldn’t seem to be much of a problem as many people regularly commute between Baltimore and Virginia.
3) Guzman and Sorto appeared confused.
That might be. Ramos was, apparently, told to shut up when explaining their story and had $28,500 of his church’s money lifted from him by an officer of the law. Confusion seems like one of many understandable emotions. Anger and frustration would seem understandable as well.
4) Guzman and Sorto did not know where they were going.
Guzman and Sorto were driving south bound towards Fayettville, and then to Atlanta, GA as they had told the officer. They knew where they were going and why.
Murphy then stated to Flower, ”People lie to me all the time why do I need to listen to you? The money was seized on behalf of ICE, J.T. Slayton of ICE Norfolk, maybe the chain of command does not know because he has not had time to file a report.”
Murphy then yelled at Flower and hung up.
Flower contacted us at Americans for Forfeiture Reform seeking recommendations on a forfeiture attorney in Virginia. We contacted David B. Smith. Smith offered to represent Mr Guzman, Mr Sorto, and Nuevo Renacer for free.
Most people are effectively precluded from fighting these seizures. Mr Guzman, Mr Sorto, and Nuevo Renacer have received pro bono counsel from Claudia Flower and David B. Smith. Smith is one of the top forfeiture attorneys in the country, a leading expert on forfeiture rules and practices, the former supervisor for forfeiture litigation in the US Attorneys Office, and the Chairman of the Forfeiture Committee in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Flower is a committed advocate and a former DHS prosecutor. Our friends at the Institute for Justice have also joined the fight. Few victims of civil forfeiture have such attorneys at their disposal. Far fewer have such attorneys donate their services.
We raise their credentials not so much to praise (although that can and should be done) but to question: What shot does a normal person have without an accomplished pro bono legal team and an easily verifiable story? How bad have civil forfeiture practices become that the government isn’t sufficiently shamed (and scared) to return church donations seized without cause, when it can easily verify that the seized funds are church donations?
Too often, victims are left with the choice of either hiring prohibitively expensive counsel (after their funds have been seized… frequently starving them of access to effective counsel) or attempting to navigate the complex, uncertain forfeiture laws on their own. Uncertain because current practice is to share custody of forfeiture cases, vacillating between state and federal custody for convenience and gain. These custody vacillations make it easier for law enforcement to seize property, more difficult for you to defend your property, and make it more profitable for law enforcement to commit seizures (sometimes by explicitly circumventing state law).
Mr Guzman has an obvious and traceable path for the money, complete with collaborating parishioner testimony. Mr Guzman has signed an affidavit attesting to the source of the currency seized. The Nuevo Renacer church confirms the story. The parishioners confirm the story. They even have the donation envelopes to confirm the story. Yet, the government retains the money. If being able to verify the legitimate source of currency isn’t enough to accomplish the return of seized property, what is? How many people are having their possessions taken that can’t afford to fight the government, or are scared to do so, or estimate the fight as a pointless and unwinnable endeavor? The story of the seized church money is a modern low. Formerly, we existed in an environment where property was regularly seized on mere accusation and/or mere suspicion. In this case, there is no accusation and the suspicion has been refuted. Yet, the government retains the money. Is the idea of private property a retired notion? The government’s retention of the church money implies that we are merely holding on to our possessions until, or if, a government agency wants to claim it.
According to the Washington Post editorial, the police are now claiming that Guzman and Sorto were travelling 86 mph in a 70 mph zone. If that were the case, the officer would have, presumably, written a ticket. There is no evidence to corroborate the accusation of speeding. Indeed, there is evidence against the accusation. Guzman’s affidavit claims that they were pulled over after the trooper ran parallel. The absence of so much as a warning implies-given the excessive speed now claimed and the tesstimony that the trooper ran parallel first- that no such speeding took place. Even if there were evidence of speeding, it should not provide sufficient cause to seize the parishioner’s funds.
We’ve been here before. Our country’s independence was sparked, in part, by such brazen abuses of seizure power. In 1761, James Otis railed, in trial, against the Writs of Assistance that allowed custom agents to arbitrarily search and seize private property:
“This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.”
A young John Adams, who was in attendance to watch the trial, later remarked, “Then and there, the child Independence was born.”
Four years later, in England, Lord Camden’s Entick v Carrington opinion articulated our shared common law protections against arbitrary search and seizure power that informs our fourth amendment:
By the laws of England, every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass. No man can set his foot upon my ground without my license, but he is liable to an action, though the damage be nothing; which is proved by every declaration in trespass, where the defendant is called upon to answer for bruising the grass and even treading upon the soil. If he admits the fact, he is bound to show by way of justification, that some positive law has empowered or excused him. The justification is submitted to the judges, who are to look into the books; and if such a justification can be maintained by the text of the statute law, or by the principles of common law. If no excuse can be found or produced, the silence of the books is an authority against the defendant, and the plaintiff must have judgment.
John Entick’s suit stemmed from an improper search and seizure by Nathan Carrington at the order of the Earl of Halifax, Secretary of the State of the Northern Department. The order was held invalid. And, barring the validity of such a power, it was considered unconscionable for Carrington to execute such an arbitrary search and seizure. Carrington was held liable.
In the case of the church donations, there is no sustainable probable cause and the suspicion is easily refuted. There is no reason that the government still has the money. Yet, two months after the seizure, the government retains the money.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. Billions of dollars are being seized and very few questions are being asked about what happens to the money or to the victims.