The Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled that a trucking company owner may contest the civil forfeiture of $39,5000 at an airport during a business trip. 

Jerry Johnson, owner of Triple J Logistics out of Charlotte, North Carolina, flew to Phoenix, Arizona in August 2020, intending to purchase a semi truck at an auction with the $39,500 in cash he brought with him. When he landed in Phoenix, police flagged Johnson as a “probable drug courier,” and that’s where the trouble started. 

Once landed, Johnson headed to collect his checked luggage and was approached by a law enforcement officer in plain clothes who questioned him about transporting drugs, and about the money in his bag. Johnson told the officer that he had no drugs, and that the money was from his personal savings and from an uncle, but the officer told him that his cash had smelled like marijuana, and that law enforcement was suspicious of money laundering, reported News 12.

Officers then told Johnson that he could either sign a “disclaimer of ownership,” or be arrested for money laundering. Johnson then signed the paper, not realizing that this meant he had legally surrendered the ownership of his money. Having lost his money, Johnson was unable to attend the truck auction or buy a truck, and headed home the next day. 

Police cited Johnson’s history with marijuana and cocaine, an odor of “marijuana” coming from the cash, and the fact that Johnson was unsure of the exact amount of money in his bag as reasons to seize the money. 

Although officers never charged Johnson with a crime, authorities sought ownership of the money through paperwork filing, and an Arizona trial court ruled that Johnson failed to prove the cash was his and so could not contest the civil forfeiture of his money.  Johnson objected and requested a hearing in Superior Court. 

The Maricopa County Superior Court then ruled that the lower court had mistakenly placed the burden of proving the cash wasn’t connected to a crime on Johnson. 

“The burden of proving that property is connected to criminal activity and thus subject to forfeiture is a burden placed squarely on the state,” the court ruling states. “By shifting this burden to Johnson, the court violated due process.”

“Today’s decision points out the obvious: Jerry Johnson properly proved ownership of his money and has the right to defend it in court,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “The scales are already tipped in the government’s favor in civil forfeiture, but the lower court went outside the bounds of Arizona law when it forced Jerry to prove his own innocence. We are glad that Jerry will have his day in court to defend against the unjust forfeiture of his life savings.”

Arizona state officials now have 30 days to appeal the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court. If no appeal is made, the government will have to prove that Johnson’s money was connected to a crime, or return it to him, reported the Institute for Justice.

The government has 30 days to appeal the Court of Appeals’ ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court. If it does not appeal, the case will be sent back to the trial court, where the government will either have to prove that Jerry’s money was connected to criminal activity or return it.

“It’s wrong that I could lose my money even though I’ve never been charged with a crime,” said Jerry. “Losing my savings has been hard on my trucking company; it kept me from expanding my vehicle fleet at a critical time during the pandemic. But it’s a big relief that I’ll have a chance to get my money back.”

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