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Legalized Theft
An Ohio Case Suggests That Civil Forfeiture Laws Are Ripe For Abuse
By Dan Harkins

Luther Ricks: He can't read but he can smell a rat. Luther Ricks was settling into his first-floor bedroom with the nightly news, his 22-year-old son of the same name upstairs on the computer, when Death politely rang the doorbell of his modest Greenlawn Avenue home in Lima. He looked at the clock: 10:30 p.m.

The 64-year-old ambled to the front of the house. The screen door was locked, the front door open. A man stood there. "I got some money for [Meredith]," Luther's wife who wasn't home. Luther opened the door and got punched right in his surprised face.

The two set to tangling. "I want your damn money!" the man kept yelling between blows. Then another guy, this one with a mask, darted through the door, but by then Luther Jr. was down the stairs and into the fray. Minutes passed, Luther Sr. says. He tried to hit the man with a vase, the man ran outside and returned with an ax. He slammed the door on him and ran to his bedroom as Luther Jr. and the other intruder continued to whale away at each other's faces.

When Luther got back, he had his pistol in his hand. Luther Jr. was coming out of the kitchen, his hand clutching a bloody belly.

"He was like, "He stabbed me!' and I lost it," Luther says. "I shot [the intruder] once and he kept coming. I shot him again. I really don't remember everything that happened. I just know what I had did. It still bothers me. I took a person's life. I have to live with it. But he came in on me. I didn't come in on him."

Jyhno Rock, 32, was dead. But that was just the end of Round One for everybody else.

Meredith Ricks is 58 now, on disability and retired from a long string of disappointing factories that closed up and left Lima behind before she could collect any meaningful pension. The auto parts maker. Gone. Continental Plastics. Gone.

She says she started putting her money away at home, apart from the banking system, when her mother died back in 1969. She had left her family with nothing, says Meredith, a diabetic. "I made a promise I wasn't going to leave my kids like that."

And so she worked, seven days a week, 12-hour shifts on many days. Holidays. Birthdays. She married Luther more than three decades ago, and he worked his ass off too at the steel plant, she says, for 14 years, until that place closed down in 1990.

"I knew that I couldn't read," Luther says. "and so I was worried. I had no diploma, so how was I gonna get a job?"

These were the types of eventualities that Meredith was planning for. Luther eventually got on disability, but it wasn't enough to fill in the hole. Meredith kept working, until retiring for good two years ago with some government money coming in. They figured they had enough to survive on.

In the safe at the back of their house, they had some savings. For decades, the couple say they were paying their bills and withdrawing the remainder from the bank for what they thought would be a safer stockpile at home, not unusual for older generations whose parents lived through the Great Depression. But word must have gotten out about the treasure, Meredith says.

"I started early so that when we got older like this, the home would be paid for and I could retire, and if something happened to me," she says. "He can't read and write, so I was trying to make sure if something happened he could take care of things."

The thieves didn't get to the loot.

Meredith was at her sister's when she heard "there's a dead guy on the kitchen floor at the Rickses' house" over a police scanner kept on in the kitchen. She got home in minutes to find her son on the front step, a dirty dishrag pressed to his stomach. She went to the hospital with him, but as soon as she was promised he would survive, she returned home, where Luther was waiting on the curb while police continued to search the entire place.

When they got to the safe, and asked for it to be opened, Luther waffled. He'd signed something at the police department shortly after the incident, he says, but he thought it was something to do with the shooting investigation, not a consent to search.

"They told me, "Meredith, we're going to have to search the whole house because of the amount of cocaine we found,'" Meredith recalls. "I said, "What cocaine?' "We found cocaine on your dresser.' I said, "You're a liar. That's off the nightstand. That's shea butter.'"

Indeed, it was dried shea butter. But the police continued to press for a motive. "Either you open it or we tear the mother****er open," Luther says they told him. But Luther claims the knob had been fiddled with, and he couldn't remember the full combination. So they blasted it. Inside: Family rings and other jewelry, car titles, $403,503, and 321 grams (a little more than 11 ounces) of marijuana.

Luther has doctor-authenticated arthritis and rickets and once had his hip replaced. He says he uses the drug to ease all the symptoms. Police say the drugs were for sale and the money was the proceeds.

Lima officers confiscated the contents. The federal government soon thereafter used civil forfeiture laws to come in and stake a claim.

Luther was exonerated in the shooting death. So he and Meredith's lives were safe, their freedom restored, but their nest egg was in somebody else's hands now.

Though a year has passed with no possession charges filed, Bill Edwards, a spokesman for the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland, said nearly two weeks ago, "A decision probably will be made in the next few weeks on how we're going to proceed."

Meredith fumes, "We struggled to get that money and they just came in and took it. We never took a vacation, never left the house, and they can just come in and take everything?"

They went months without an attorney - they had no money left to hire one. Chicago attorney Bryan Westhoff finally took their case pro bono. He didn't see how such a small amount of drugs could justify disrupting an entire family tree.

"We don't take a car from somebody when they're caught speeding," Westhoff says. "We're hoping and thinking [the feds will] do the right thing and return the money. There's no evidence that anyone in that house was involved in selling drugs, so there's no reason to believe that this money was proceeds of the drug trade."

But according to federal asset forfeiture law, it's the Rickses who will have to prove that the money is theirs to keep.

A request for a police report on the incident was met with cordial indifference. In what was provided, the account of what occurred at the house was a single line about officers responding to a break-in. Nothing else.

A records clerk said to call the detective in charge, Scott Leland. He didn't return calls seeking comment on the case. They did return calls from ABC News in April, though, after Westhoff filed a request for the money to be returned. Only at that point did the feds have to decide whether to file charges.

Lima police Lt. Jim Baker said that paraphernalia also was found in the house and that the thief who survived (Diondrake Sims II, who pleaded guilty to burglary in February) told officers that he believed the Rickses were dealing drugs and that's why the two had targeted them.

"We looked at the totality of the situation - the statement made by the suspect that lived, the marijuana in the house, the fact that the bills in the safe were newer bills," Baker said.

Westhoff counters, "We've seen no evidence that these were newer bills."

The Institute for Justice, a vocal critic of civil forfeiture laws, reported recently that seized assets rose nationwide between the fiscal years 2006 and 2007 from $257 million to $366 million.

The law on which forfeiture is based contains a complex formula for how the proceeds are divided among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Jeff Gamso, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, fears the process is ripe for corruption.

"It's a terrible law," Gamso says. "The way the law works essentially is, you've got to prove the government is wrong. I don't know how to put this other than to say that that's fundamentally un-American. The idea is that somehow we're going to assume you're guilty because the government says so."

The law offers an incentive to officers to make crimes more profitable for the system, Gamso believes.

In Ohio, right around the time Meredith Ricks was beginning to amass her savings, an undercover cop and drug dealer were sitting in a Burger King. Gamso says he can't recall the city, but that it happens all the time across the map. "The cop says, "Let's go do it in your Mercedes, it's quieter,'" Gamso recalls. "So they go and sit in the Mercedes, take the drugs, arrest the guy, and, oh, thanks for the new car. It happens all the time. It happens because it's an incentive for police to get that valuable piece of property."

Longtime Cleveland defense attorney Terry Gilbert says the city of Lima has seized homes from suspects before. He isn't surprised to see the Rickses lose their money.

"[The government] may have enough to initiate something here, but ultimately the courts are going to look to more substantial evidence to prove whether it was an offshoot of criminal activity," Gilbert says.

The government is always looking for a way to offset rising costs, Gilbert says, and having the upper hand helps: "We have this frequently, where a search warrant is issued, say, for drugs, and in the process of looking for drugs they find other property that they assume was derived from criminal activity - flat-screen TVs or cameras or jewelry. They take everything, and meanwhile the individual who owns the stuff is stuck for months on end while a criminal case goes through the courts, and then what normally happens is, in order to avoid serious penalties, they have to plea bargain, and prosecutors will say, "If you want this deal, you'll have to give up this property.' And so, the question becomes, are you gonna fight for your flat screen and $20,000 you kept under your bed and risk going to prison? It's a legal shakedown. Most lawyers will just say, "They got you over the barrel. Just give up.'"

The smaller the towns, Gilbert says, the more egregious the tactics.

"In these small towns like Lima, I believe that they're very vigorous in this. They've taken houses where they've found some pot in it. They say the house was used to perpetuate the crime."

Meredith is happy that their house wasn't taken. She just doesn't know how Social Security is going to keep the lights on.

"We're just tired," she says. "Tired and mad. I wish God would put it on their hearts to do the right thing. And I believe they know what the right thing is here."

http://www.freetimes.com/stories/15/59/legalized-theft
 

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400 grand is a big stack of cash.

How did the bad guys know there was money there?

"I got money for Meredith" and the guy opens the door??? Sounds like people bringing money to the house was not uncommon.

11 ounces? That's 3/4 of a pound of pot. Maybe the money is legit... maybe the kid was dealing it to make extra funds... who knows... but I can see why the cops are suspicious.
 

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Yeah... illiterate people working at factory wages saving up 400 grand in cash? Possible... I think... but not very freakin' likely.
 

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Nope, 11 ounces and 400K is not a life savings. As stated above there were used to having people drop off money, so I'm thinking that they were distributing to smaller dealers.
 

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yeah sounds kinda bs, who needs that much pot for medical use
adding to that a pound of pot in ohio is worth 3 times more than it is on the west coast...
and usually people who keep money at home have illegitimate money, specially almost half a million dollars
throw that in the bank at 5%.. sounds a lot more beneficial
 

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Then they would have to explain where it came from. Two factory jobs salaries will not equal 400,000 dollars, especially when you factor in cost of living.
 

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sounds very fishy to me....
 

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iCeMaN said:
sounds very fishy to me....
not to me. I knew a good friend that kept 1 million in his safe at home.
I have other old customers that could have easily have the same amount of money in their house in a safe. people that have either been very poor or have seen hard times do like to have their money at home.

I may or may not have 30k hidden somewhere close by
 

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to each is own....
 

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If you have ever been through a hurricaine you would understand cash is king and if there is no power, there is no open banks, no open banks means no fuel for your generator.

cash buys what you need
 

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correct me if I am wrong, but I thought it was illegal to take something from somebody at gun point
 

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:lol: :lol: :lol:
 

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cash is king like they say....
 

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cash is paper..

if you want/need something during a time of crisis, and someone says no
what do you do?

i for one value my life above a strangers, so ill do what it takes to get my food and water if cash turns to useless paper
 

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well i guess thats why i have 2 generators, and 3000 gallons of water and I fill the tanks on the boat so I have 165 gallon plus of gass on hand,
along with 8000k plus rounds of ammo
 

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eight thousand, thousand? dayum thats more than i have :lol:

well thats good then you wont be a victim... the sheep are screwed though
 

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over 4k is 5.56 and 2.5k of 7.62. about1k of .357 sig 1k of 9mm oops I may have a lot more then that I like ot have at least 1k for every caliber

6.8
40
45
7.62.*39
12gage
.357 mag
damn no wonder my wife thinks there is no extra room in my closet
 
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