How the government makes free money off suspected drug trafficking
On March 12, an Express Mail package arrived at the U.S. Postal Service’s Incoming Mail Facility in Linthicum, outside Baltimore. Its handwritten label gave a name and address for the sender, Tim Flores in Germantown, Md., and the recipient, John Velazquez of San Francisco. Drugs dealers frequently use handwritten labels, postal inspectors know, and illegal drugs frequently are mailed from San Francisco to Maryland while cash to pay for drugs is frequently mailed to San Francisco from Maryland. Suspicions that contraband might be in the package are raised further because Velazquez’ address in San Francisco is for a commercial mail facility, which, postal inspectors know, are frequently used for shipments of contraband.
The rest is easy: cash almost always smells like drugs to a drug-sniffing dog, so get a positive alert and apply for a search warrant to open the package. Given all the other telltale signs – a handwritten label, an origin and destination that match known drug routes, and the use of a mail-drop center – it might actually contain contraband.
On March 18, according to a declaration by U.S. postal inspector Craig Jones, the package was opened. Inside was $10,675 in vacuum-packed cash, mostly in $20 bills, and nothing else – no notes or instructions, just the cash. So the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office on Sept. 16 filed a forfeiture lawsuit to keep it, asserting a “reasonable belief” that it was drug-related cash, based on the postal inspector’s broad understanding of patterns in the drug trade’s use of the U.S. mail. Unless Flores or Velazquez or someone else with a claim to the cash steps up prepared to go to battle with prosecutors, the government will get to keep it.
Voila! Free money for the government! A few hours’ work for an inspector, a dog, and a prosecutor, and the money’s all theirs! If only the rest of us could make such profitable use of our “reasonable beliefs.”