One afternoon in August 2012, Mandrel Stuart was driving with his girlfriend into Washington, D.C., when a Fairfax County cop pulled him over on Interstate 66, ostensibly because the windows of his SUV were too dark. Lacking the device necessary to check whether the tinting of the windows exceeded the legal limit, Officer Kevin Palizzi instead cited Stuart for having a video running within his line of sight. While Palizzi was filling out the summons, another officer arrived with a drug-detecting dog. Claiming the dog alerted to the left front bumper and wheel of Stuart’s GMC Yukon, the cops searched the car and found $17,550 in cash, which they kept, assuming that it must be related to the illegal drug trade.
Stuart, who had planned to use that money to buy equipment and supplies for his barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Virginia, was astonished that a routine traffic stop could so easily turn into grand theft. But as Washington Post reporters Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., and Steven Rich explain in a revealing and troubling series of stories that ran last week, taking Stuart’s hard-earned money was perfectly legal, thanks to civil forfeiture laws that turn cops into highway robbers.
“I paid taxes on that money,” Stuart told the Post. “I worked for that money. Why should I give them my money?” Although the financial difficulties that ensued from his encounter with Officer Palizzi forced him to close his restaurant, Stuart ultimately got his money back after challenging the forfeiture in court. Because the government lost the case after a federal trial, it even had to pay Stuart’s legal bills, which totaled nearly $12,000.