On June 17, Curtis Simmons was in the JetBlue kiosk area of Fort Lauderdale International Airport's Terminal 3 when he was approached by two unarmed, plainclothes detectives. The 32-year-old from Elkridge, Maryland, had just purchased a ticket for a 7:15 p.m. non-stop flight to Los Angeles.
"I had missed my flight the day before and I had to rebook with a different airline," Simmons said in an interview. "As soon as I printed out my boarding pass, they surrounded me."
According to a civil forfeiture complaint filed in Florida's Broward County Circuit Court, Simmons was stopped by deputies with a narcotics and money laundering task force led by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. As they peppered Simmons with questions, the complaint states, he granted the cops permission to search his backpack and his carry-on suitcase. It was then that police allegedly "smelled a strong odor of cannabis" emanating from Simmons and the clothing inside his suitcase. The JetBlue traveler said he had smoked weed earlier, but wasn't under the influence, and that although he didn't have a medical card, he used cannabis to treat work-related pain, according to the complaint.
Cops didn't turn up any weed, but they did find $6,290 in cash in Simmons's pocket and another $5,000 in a pair of jeans in his carry-on, according to the complaint. A canine would confirm the presence of "narcotics" on the money and, after asking Simmons "direct and simple" questions, cops said, they determined he was "exhibiting signs of deception and untruthfulness." The complaint claims Simmons lied about when he purchased his ticket, misled about how much money he had on him, and that he became visibly nervous, began to tremble, and continuously put his head down in an effort to avoid eye contact. Basically, that he started acting like a stoned teenager.
When police finished their impromptu interrogation, they told Simmons the $11,290 was being seized for civil forfeiture, the process by which law-enforcement agencies can take cash, homes and other property from people suspected of being involved in illegal activity without charging them with a crime. It’s a practice critics have long claimed police departments use to pad their own budgets and generally lends itself to abuse, one the Supreme Court sought to rein in earlier this year.
As it turns out, people traveling to California who smell like weed and are carrying large sums of cash appear to be regularly getting their money taken away at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. A review by VICE of Broward County court records found the Sheriff's Office has filed at least 15 other civil asset forfeiture complaints against 19 individuals since 2016, all under circumstances similar to those in Simmons's case. Two seizures occurred the same week deputies took the money in Simmons's possession.
In every one of the 16 recent complaints, the Broward County Sheriff's Office alleges cops approached individuals seemingly at random, that their belongings smelled like cannabis, that they had purchased one-way plane tickets with a final destination in a California city on the same day or a few days earlier, that a police K-9 detected the odor of narcotics on the money they carried, and that they provided untruthful and evasive answers as to the source of their funds and the reasons why they were traveling to the Golden State. In some cases, the individuals also had multiple cell phones. For those reasons, the money was seized on the presumption the individuals may be involved in drug trafficking, the complaints state.
But a review of the complaints and Broward's criminal court docket shows that only three people stopped by the task force were arrested for drug possession the same day they were stopped. None have been charged with a drug-trafficking crime.
Meanwhile, in the past three years, the Broward County Sheriff's Office has seized $189,678 in this fashion.
The complaints provide a peek into the latest prong in local law enforcement's war against the cross-country cannabis black market by apparently attempting to short-circuit dealers before they fly to a legal state and acquire weed merchandise. But critics said targeting airport travelers could trample people's rights to refuse an illegal search and seizure while police departments pocket cash that was allegedly going to be used to purchase a product that is legal in one state, but illegal in another.
Federally deputized by the Department of Homeland Security, the task force in question is charged with the detection, investigation, and prosecution of crimes being committed at airports, seaports, and parcel shipment facilities, according to the complaints. Florida has only legalized cannabis for medical purposes, but according to the Miami Herald, the number of intercepted cannabis packages seized by U.S. postal inspectors in the Sunshine State soared by 510 percent over the past five years. And if you take the Broward cops' word for it, it's common for individuals traveling with large sums of cash to "marijuana source" states like California to, upon arrival, buy large quantities of cannabis products that they then ship back to Florida through the postal service, UPS or FedEx. In some instances, they smuggle the contraband in their luggage, court filings by the Broward County Sheriff's Office suggest.
The task force is apparently seeking to intercept the money before these exchanges even take place. But drug-war reformers and civil libertarians contend the Broward Sheriff's Office appears to be abusing Florida's Contraband Forfeiture Act by catching individuals off guard in the anxiety-inducing confines of an airport.
Typically, civil forfeiture cases arise during the course of an ongoing criminal investigation or a traffic stop where an officer establishes probable cause to search a vehicle. Florida law mandates police agencies file complaints in civil court during which law enforcement presents evidence that was used as the basis for probable cause. In the cases of the 16 complaints VICE reviewed, the Broward Sheriff's Office argued that probable cause existed to seize the money from Simmons and the other individuals because taken as a whole, the odor of cannabis on their person and their currency, their evasive answers, the manner in which they purchased their airline tickets and other determining factors alleged in the documents established that the currency "has a nexus to a narcotics transaction." (Most states mirror Florida's law, although California and Connecticut are two states that don't allow civil asset seizures unless the owner has been convicted of a crime.)
In civil forfeiture cases, the burden is on the owner to prove the seized cash was earned through legitimate means even if there are no criminal charges, which can deter people from filing counterclaims. In this case, the law-enforcement agency seems to be counting on the individuals not contesting or challenging the deputies' accusations out of fear they may get arrested or publicly shamed, experts said. Sure enough, attempts to contact other individuals whose money was seized were either unsuccessful or met with unwillingness to comment.
Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor and criminal justice expert at Columbia University, suggested Broward's top law enforcement agency was conducting borderline illegal search and seizures. "This seems to be a bizarre Fourth Amendment violation," he said. "What's the probable cause? An airplane ticket to California? Professionally, it smells."
Emma Andersson, an ACLU senior staff attorney, argued the Broward cases show that Florida needs to do more work reforming its civil asset forfeiture law. She noted the state legislature amended the law in 2016, creating a requirement that law enforcement agencies arrest suspects before seizing their cars and boats using civil forfeiture, but that police are still allowed to take cash without charging the owner with a crime. The departments and agencies get to keep the money once a final forfeiture order is obtained. Also, in 2017, a federal policy instituted by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions superseded Florida's law, effectively opening the door for local and state police agencies to ignore it.
"This incentivizes policing motivated by profit rather than public safety, which Florida law oddly both frowns upon and allows," Andersson said. "The law warns that the potential for obtaining revenues from forfeitures must not override fundamental considerations such as public safety, the safety of law enforcement officers, or the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity. And yet the law also plainly permits police to retain the property for the agency's use."
Widney Brown, managing director of the legalization advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, added that law enforcement agencies are also counting on individuals' inability to fight the civil forfeiture complaints because it will cost money to hire a lawyer and it could be years before they get the money back.
Of the 16 complaints filed by the sheriff's office, only three have been contested. In that trio of cases, the sheriff's office settled and returned a portion of the money seized.
Broward Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Gina Carter declined to answer questions about how many criminal cases have been initiated as a result of the seizures, if any criminal cases have been successfully prosecuted, and why no trafficking charges had been filed against the individuals whose money was seized. She also did not answer questions about profiling travelers, when (or if) the task force began targeting travelers going to California, and what the sheriff's office does with the funds it successfully seizes. She also declined requests to interview task force members.
"The sheriff's office does not comment on pending investigations," Carter said in an email statement. "Any information revealing surveillance techniques or procedures or personnel is exempt from [Florida's public records law.]" Nelson Yglesias, a spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations' Miami office, declined comment and referred questions to the Sheriff's office. "HSI is not the lead in the task force," Yglesias said in an email.
Russell Cormican, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense and civil asset forfeiture lawyer, said the sheriff's office was taking advantage of the fact that people's expectations of privacy are diminished inside an airport, where checked bags can be inspected without consent and carry-on luggage is run through an X-ray machine for security purposes. Cormican said it's human nature for people to agree to speak to police in an airport setting.
"When they are confronted by an authority figure, they sometimes feel they have no choice," he said.
Cormican noted travelers can decline to speak to investigators, and then the cops need to establish probable cause or obtain a warrant to detain a person. "Police may still find the money anyway," Cormican said. "But at least you didn’t dig your own hole."
In an interview with VICE, Simmons disputed some of the allegations in the complaint, like the details of the NBA Finals bet he told police was the source of all his cash. He also said he provided the cops with specific information as to who he was staying with, contradicting their account.
Most importantly, Simmons denied being involved in cannabis trafficking, but said he didn't protest the seizure of his money—which he claimed was intended to buy himself a Rolex—to avoid missing his flight a second time. "I didn't know why this was happening, so that is why I was nervous," he said. Simmons was not arrested on any weed-related charges, nor money-related crimes.
Still, Simmons said the officers had spread out all his belongings and counted the money in full view of other passengers. "It was embarrassing," he said. "It seemed like they profiled me because they thought that [drug dealing] was the only way a black person could have that much money."
Simmons said he certainly felt intimidated, especially when the officers brought over the K-9.
"I didn't know what would come next and what they would accuse me of," he said. "I didn't want to do anything to piss them off."
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