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Man sues police, agencies over cash seizure

He says search at S.L. airport was illegal

SHARE Man sues police, agencies over cash seizure

A Salt Lake man is suing two federal police agencies and the Transportation Security Administration, alleging that police violated his 4th Amendment rights by illegally searching and seizing his property — $26,000 in cash he planned to use to purchase goods for his art business — while detaining the man at the airport last year.

Matthew Ryan Smith, owner of Rythmatic Enterprises, claims the business and his personal reputation suffered after police removed him in handcuffs from the Salt Lake International Airport Aug. 14, 2003. Smith's removal occurred after security agents found Smith was carrying the quantity of money in his carry-on luggage, according to the suit filed in federal court this past week.

Smith is seeking a jury trial and both compensatory and punitive damages for the actions of federal agents. Named in the suit are the TSA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshal Service and Salt Lake police, whose officers detained Smith until DEA agents arrived. The agencies have 20 days to respond to the filing.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, which represents all federal agencies in court, could not comment on the case Thursday, as the office had yet to see the suit, spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said.

Smith's attorney, Marianne McGregor Guelker, also said she could offer little comment since the litigation is pending. She did say, however, that the 27-year-old Smith was never charged with a crime and that the profitability of his business has suffered.

In court documents, Smith, a glass-blower and artist by trade, claims that when detained he was traveling to Seattle to attend various art festivals in order to purchase gems, minerals, glass supplies and finished art for his business.

A TSA agent told Smith that she was required by policy to contact police when large sums of money are discovered among a passenger's effects. A Salt Lake police officer contacted DEA agents, who over the telephone began an inquiry of Smith, telling him, "If you're gonna play hard with me, I'm going to come and seize your money," and "It'll take your lawyer at least a year to get it back," court documents state.

Detained and questioned for four hours, Smith was prevented from watching police handle and count his money, was made to turn over his wallet and car keys, and was put off when he asked on three occasions to contact an attorney.

Smith alleges that agents searched his vehicle without his permission and that a dog trained to sniff out drugs was coaxed into a reaction to Smith's money.

The suit also says Smith was made to sign a receipt for his seized funds, even though that receipt contained no statement of the items taken or their value.

Smith has never been charged with a state or federal crime, although federal agents held his money for more than nine months, the lawsuit states. Smith also claims the money returned to him was a few thousand dollars short of the total he was carrying, court documents state.

The practice of seizing assets, such as Smith's money or property like homes or cars, is often used by state and federal law enforcement. Known as asset forfeiture, the practice is most commonly used in connection with criminal investigations, and its purpose it to divest criminals of the proceeds of illegal activity.

In Utah, the practice has been hotly debated due to concerns that the practice marginalizes the rights of innocent property owners and provides incentives for police work, as police departments were allowed to sell the seized assets and keep any profits.

A 2000 ballot initiative passed by 60 percent of voters had all but halted the practice until this year, when the Legislature passed SB175, reinstating the practice with some new restrictions and conditions.

Utah police conduct forfeitures in state courts or partner with federal agencies and participate in forfeiture through the federal court system. Federal forfeitures can net local police large sums of money for crime-fighting efforts. Federal forfeiture sharing was also off-limits under Initiative B but was restored by the reforms of SB175.

Federal seizures, such as occurred in Smith's case, are a cause for great concern, said Janet Jenson, a Utah attorney who helped draft Initiative B, because the process jeopardizes the rights of property owners.

"The federal procedure needs some serious reform," Jenson said. "Can no one carry money anymore without being presumed a drug dealer? I don't know why even $26,000 in cash should presume that you are dealing drugs. People have the right to carry any amount of money they want."

That Smith's money was kept for so many months and was so difficult to recover — court documents say Smith incurred nearly $20,000 in legal expenses in doing so — is also no surprise, Jenson said.

"Innocent property owners are not a high priority in the criminal justice system," she said. "If you are presumed to be a drug dealer, and maybe especially if (police) have no case against you, (police) don't want people to know that they are doing (seizures)."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Danes, who could not address Smith's suit but spoke in general terms about forfeiture, said there are three types of forfeiture procedures that occur under federal law: administrative, civil and criminal, some of which occur separately from the prosecution of an individual. In all cases, however, federal agencies must have sufficient probable cause to seize property and an appropriate accounting of the items taken, he said.

E-mail: jdobner@desnews.com