Police in Rochester, New York, seized $8,040 from Cristal Starling during a raid on her apartment in October 2020. Starling was never charged with a crime, but she may never see her money again due to missing a court deadline during the complicated process of challenging the seizure.
Starling’s apartment was one of two locations Rochester police hit while investigating her former boyfriend, who was suspected of dealing drugs. The police didn’t find any drugs in the apartment, but they did find and take Starling’s cash. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity. (Starling’s ex-boyfriend was arrested for drugs found at a separate raid in the same investigation, but he was later acquitted.)
Starling, who runs a food cart and says she was saving up for a food truck, began trying to fight the seizure without a lawyer. She managed to get her seized car back, and she thought that, with no criminal charges pending in the case anymore, she would no doubt soon get her cash back, too.
Instead, she got a nasty surprise. The Rochester Police Department had sent her money to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and although she had filed a notice with the Justice Department that she was challenging the forfeiture, she had missed a deadline to do so in federal court, meaning the government could move to forfeit her money by default.
After a judge rejected Starling’s request for an extended deadline, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, announced this week that it will file an appeal on her behalf, arguing that people like Starling should have greater opportunity to challenge government seizures.
“People deserve their day in court, especially when the government has taken their property without ever charging them with a crime,” IJ senior attorney Rob Johnson said in a press release.
Starling sent letters to the court begging for an extension, saying she had been on vacation when the Justice Department supposedly notified her of the deadline.
“I have done everything that was asked of me to make a claim to my currency since the day it was confiscated,” Starling wrote. “These actions include filing a petition to the Department of Justice on December 17, 2020…and a claim on January 15, 2021…. These actions were taken in response to correspondence received to do so in a timely manner. In addition to these filings, I contacted and followed the advice of the district attorney presiding over the case that resulted in these monies being confiscated several times. I was told that there would be no release of funds until the case was closed. The defendant in said case was acquitted of all charges on November 17, 2021 and as a result I am following up to get my currency returned to me”
Although federal courts give some leeway to people representing themselves, a U.S. district judge found her responsible for missing the deadline and issued a default judgment in favor of the government.
“The Court recognizes that Claimant’s lack of training in the law is a disadvantage to her knowledge of the civil forfeiture rules,” U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa wrote in a order on February 3, “but Claimant’s decision not to seek an attorney’s advice was a matter ‘within [her] reasonable control,’ which weighs against a finding of excusable neglect.”
What Starling has learned the hard way is that asset forfeiture laws not only allow police to seize one’s property without an accompanying criminal charge, but that the process to challenge a seizure is tilted in favor of the government. It’s extremely hard for everyday people to navigate the labyrinthine process to get their money back without paying for an attorney, which in Starling’s case would have probably cost enough to make a victory in court negligible.
“The process to get one’s money back following a forfeiture is unnecessarily complex and nearly impossible to navigate without legal representation,” IJ attorney Seth Young said. “Cristal did everything she could to follow the instructions and still never got the day in court she deserves.”
More than half of U.S. states have passed some form of civil asset forfeiture reform over the past decade because of cases like Starling’s.
IJ is now filing an appeal on Starling’s behalf to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. If successful, Starling’s case will be kicked back to district court, where she will have the opportunity to challenge the seizure.
Starling also filed letters in court saying federal prosecutors offered to settle the case by giving half of her money back.
“My question to them was if I had already lost all rights to the full amount of currency .. and it’s already in default, why would you be offering half of it back,” Starling told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.
It’s an interesting question. If federal prosecutors really believed Starling’s money was the fruit of drug trafficking, it would be strange to offer half of it back. Unfortunately, these settlement offers are common. Federal prosecutors assume that most people will look at the time and legal costs involved in challenging a forfeiture and decide to cut their losses.
It’s a cynical ploy more fit for a kleptocracy or the mafia than a government for the people.