The cross-country flight from Newark had just touched down at San Francisco International Airport, and Brice Barton was already in trouble.
It was late January, and the Seattle-area man was making his sixth coast-to-coast trip since September. SFO was his layover before a one-way flight to Arcata in Humboldt County. He never made it north.
Within minutes after stepping off the plane, Barton encountered his welcome crew: DEA agents. They'd been tipped off by the TSA back east — the diligent luggage-scanners — that they might find something interesting in Barton's luggage.
Adopting a friendly tone, the drug cops asked if they could search his backpack. He agreed. Nothing. Escorting him to baggage claim, they asked him if he had any drugs in his checked suitcase. He said no, and he was telling the truth. A search, though, turned up $100,000 in cash.
That meant trouble. Barton knew it. “One way it's with Vaseline, and the other without,” he told the agents after they fished out the cash, according to their sworn testimony, “either way I'm fucked.”
He may be, and so are other people with money in their pockets, technically. Big or small, legitimate or not, any cache of money can be seized and forfeited by the federal government at any time, attorneys and experts say, and for a simple reason.
It's covered in drugs.
Check your pockets. Do you have any bills on you? If so, congratulations: You're carrying drugs.
As much as 80 percent of U.S. currency in circulation has traces of drugs on it, mostly cocaine and methamphetamine. This is not disputed: Even the U.S. Supreme Court takes this as gospel.
After identifying an amount of money they want to take, drug cops have a simple procedure. They get a drug-sniffing dog to tell them if there are drugs on the money, then seize it.
“If they want your money, they get Fido to alert to it,” says a defense attorney who works on these cases. “And Fido alerts to everything.”
Barton's case is not unique. “This happens everywhere — everywhere there's a major airport,” said Rory Little, a law professor at UC Hastings who spent much of the coke-crazed 1980s as a United States Attorney in San Francisco. In those days, the forfeiture unit in the office was a quiet bunch, doing its work in an unglamorous corner of the office.
But members were always a hit at the annual Christmas party: They raked in millions, essentially providing the cash to keep the office going.
Forfeitures also work in another unique way that's stacked against the cash-carrier. In all other areas of law, the burden of proof is on the accuser: The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt someone is guilty of wrongdoing.
With seized cash or property, it's the other way around. The government doesn't need to prove you're a drug-dealer to take your money. You just need to prove that you aren't, and provide an honest accounting for every cent. “The burden of proof is on the contestant to prove an innocent source,” says Little. “That's crazy, in my opinion.”
He has his own shaggy drug-dog story: He and a judge friend were returning from a conference when they encountered a dog in the terminal. The dog alerted police to the judge's briefcase. Sheepishly, the cop asked to check the case. There was nothing in the briefcase — except for probable cause for the cops to seize it, should the urge have struck them.
Most honest people would say that a person carrying a huge amount of money while headed to the capital of California pot country was up to no good. They might be right. But there are innocent people carrying cash — and it's not a crime to carry money, until the feds decide otherwise.
Exactly how much money the feds are seizing in this way is hard to pin down. This is because public records tell only a small part of the story. Courts handle “judicial seizures,” currency forfeitures that are contested.
Of late, these are increasing. In the Northern District, which comprises most of the Bay Area and coastal California up to the Oregon border, the feds moved to take about $1 million in currency last year. That's up from under $500,000 the year before, and $778,000 in 2011 — but only six months into 2014 and the feds have seized $797,880, according to records.
But these are a small fraction of the overall seizures, most of which are “administrative seizures.” These never see the inside of a courtroom.
A DEA spokeswoman declined to say how much the local drug cops are seizing via this route and directed SF Weekly to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to take a peek at the ledger. By the time the FOIA process takes its course, it will likely be 2015.
By then, hundreds more people and millions more dollars will likely land in the feds' hands. Barton wasn't so special: His was the fifth case that day, agents told him. And his flight landed before noon.