July 21, 2021
By Stephen Silverman
It’s unjust and unconstitutional for the government to seize innocent people’s property—and simply pocket the cash. Doing so undermines the legitimacy of government and threatens the due process rights of all. Yet it happens all the time to property owners who have done nothing wrong—and Ky Hon Dai Nguyen is one of those innocent people.
In October 2019, Dai was leaving baggage claim at Oakland International Airport, when a police dog began sniffing at his bag. Based on that dog alert, police obtained a search warrant. But when they opened Dai’s bag, they found not drugs, but cash—and a lot of it. Dai was carrying $220,000, which he had received as a wedding present from his family in the Atlanta area. Carrying large amounts of cash may seem unusual, but it’s not illegal: After all, many people still prefer to carry cash.
What’s more, although the dog that alerted to Dai’s bag had been trained to detect the scent of marijuana, recreational marijuana is now legal in California. That means that even if the canine’s alert was accurate, it did not provide probable cause to detain or search Dai or to seize his property. And a year-and-a-half after taking Dai’s property, the police have still not charged him with a crime. Nevertheless, prosecutors want to keep his money anyway—even though Dai has done nothing to run afoul of the law.
While Dai’s story may be shocking, it’s all too common for government to take property from people never even accused of a crime. That’s because California law allows police and prosecutors to keep most of the money they take through civil forfeiture—and many other states have similar laws on the books. But as Justice Thomas pointed out recently, federal and state laws drug laws are now in such disarray that Americans live in “a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana” and a “contradictory and unstable state of affairs [that] strains basic principles of federalism and conceals traps for the unwary.”
One of those traps sprang on Dai Nguyen. Despite the fact that he has never been accused or convicted of breaking any law, state officials are insisting that they can simply take his money. They’ve filed a motion that will be heard before an Alameda County Superior Court judge this October, claiming authority to forfeit Dai’s money. This week, we filed a brief supporting Dai’s argument for the return of his property.
This is the latest example of the Goldwater Institute leading the fight against government’s unfair property grab. Last year, government took away Tucson handyman Kevin McBride’s Jeep—his primary source of income—using civil forfeiture laws and demanded $1,900 to return it. Goldwater stepped in and got Kevin’s Jeep back. And earlier this year, we did the same for Massachusetts grandmother Malinda Harris, whose car was unfairly taken by officers and held for six years.
You can learn more about our work to stop government theft here.
Stephen Silverman is a Senior Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.