A Virginia restaurant owner has had his day in court after having $17,550 seized by police without being charged with a crime.
Mandrel Stuart owned a barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Virginia. Police pulled him over in August, 2012. During the following months Stuart was unable to pay his bills and rent. He was forced to close his small business.
On the night of the seizure, Stuart and his girlfriend were headed to Washington, D.C. for a date and to buy supplies for his restaurant, when Fairfax County Officer Kevin Palizzi pulled them over on I-66. Palizzi stopped Stuart initially for having tinted windows. During the stop, Palizzi saw the movie Flashdance was also playing in Stuart’s car, which led to a $20 infraction.
A K-9 unit arrived and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs in Stuart’s car. Police then searched the car and found $17,550 in cash. A more thorough investigation of the car uncovered a miniscule amount of marijuana: just 0.01 gram. Police later gave Stuart a scrap of paper as a receipt. He was never charged with any crime.
Determined to get his money back, Stuart hired an attorney. But he faced an uphill battle. According to the Institute for Justice’s report, “Policing for Profit,” under Virginia law, owners in civil forfeiture cases have to prove their innocence in court to keep their property. This reverse burden of proof is surprisingly common in the United States: In only six states is the government required to prove guilt for all civil forfeiture proceedings, as is the norm for criminal cases.
Prosecutors offered Stuart a deal to settle. They would give back half the money taken from him. Obviously he refused. “I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart said. “Why should I give them my money?”
Stuart took the case to a jury where they ruled in his favor in less than 35 minutes. Stuart won back the amount seized plus legal fees which totaled around $12,000. It took Stuart 14 months to get back his property.
He has not reopened his restaurant.