Court Ruling Forces Nebraska Police to Return $1 Million Seized from a Former Exotic Dancer by Asset Forfeiture

A federal judge recently ordered the return of $1 million seized from a former exotic dancer by asset forfeiture [HT: VC reader Tom Kamenick]:

A federal judge has ruled that Nebraska cops must return over $1 million confiscated at a traffic stop from a woman who saved the money $1 at a time during her 15 year career as an exotic dancer.

The money belongs to Tara Mishra, 33, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who began putting aside her earnings when she started dancing at age 18, according to an opinion U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon wrote last week. The money was meant to start her business and get out of the stripping business, the judge wrote.

State troopers confiscated the money in March 2012 when they pulled over Rajesh and Marina Dheri, of Montville, N.J., for speeding in Nebraska, according to court documents. The Dheris are friends of Mishra and had been given the cash so they could buy a nightclub in New Jersey. Mishra would own half of the business and the Dheris would own the other half.

Mishra had packaged the money in $10,000 bundles tied with hair bands and placed in plastic bags, and it was stashed in the trunk of the Dheri’s rented car, which the Dheris were driving to Chicago. When they were pulled over for speeding, a state trooper asked the Dheris if he could search their vehicle, which they allowed, Bataillon explained.

The state trooper found the money and after suspecting it was drug money took the Dheris into custody, according to the judge’s opinion. But police did not find any evidence of drug activity in the car and a K-9 analysis found only trace elements of illegal drugs on the cash, according to Bataillon….

“The government failed to show a substantial connection between drugs and the money,” Bataillon wrote in his opinion. “The dog sniff is inconsequential…The court finds the Mishras’ story is credible… Ms. Mishra did have control over the money and directed the Dheris to deliver the money to New Jersey for the purchase of the business.”

Despite the, ahem, exotic aspects of this case, the basic problem it exemplifies is all too common. In many states, police routinely seize large amounts of property through asset forfeiture, even from people who have not been convicted of any crime and in some cases were never even charged with one. It is also often difficult or impossible for property owners to contest the seizures in anything like a timely manner. Notice that, even in this case, it took over 15 months for Mishra to get her money back, despite the fact that there was no real evidence that she had committed a crime. As the judge wrote, the dog sniff was indeed inconsequential, because such sniffs are often unreliable, and most large wads of cash probably contains some bills that were once handled by drug users or dealers (given the way money circulates).

UPDATE: I have corrected a technical glitch in the first sentence of this post. Sorry for the annoyance.

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