This story was originally published by the WND News Center.
The federal government has gone technical in a scheme to avoid paying lawyers' fees in a court case that it was losing.
Its lawyers conceded they would not win, so they willingly gave up and dismissed the case.
Following the most technical definition of the situation, since the plaintiff didn't "win" in the courtroom, the government now claims it is not liable for lawyers fees.
But they are facing a fight over it.
The situation developed when Drug Enforcement Administration agents took $8,500 from Brian Moore that belonged to him, just as he was traveling through the Atlanta airport.
He was never charged with a crime and went to court to get his money back.
So at some point, federal lawyers realized, given the evidence in the case, they could not win in court, so they "dismissed" their claim to keeping Moore's cash.
"By federal law, property owners are supposed to have their attorneys’ fees paid by the government when they beat civil forfeiture. But a federal court determined that because the government gave up, Brian did not 'substantially prevail' and will not be reimbursed for the cost of litigating his case," the Institute for Justice explained.
It said it now is appealing to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to get that compensation for the unnecessary courtroom antics prompted by the confiscation of the cash.
"The government should face consequences when it files meritless civil forfeiture cases," said IJ Attorney Joshua House. "By any definition, Brian won his case, and it is clear that Congress wanted the government to pay attorneys’ fees to property owners in these circumstances so that victims of forfeiture abuse are made whole."
Moore was taking cash with him to Los Angeles to work on a music video in support of his career. The cash came from the sale of his late grandfather's vehicle.
DEA agents stopped him at the gate and took his money.
"Fortunately, Brian was able to find attorneys who were willing to take his case and help him navigate the maze of federal civil forfeiture procedures. They successfully compiled the evidence proving that Brian’s money was from a legitimate source—from the sale of a vehicle owned by his late grandfather. The government presented no evidence to support its allegations that the money came from a criminal source. The government dismissed the case 'with prejudice,' meaning that it could never refile the forfeiture case again," the IJ said.
"I did nothing wrong but I had to spend thousands of dollars to get my own money back," said Moore. "When the government takes something from you wrongly, it should be the one to pay. I hope the court will do the right thing so that innocent people can afford to defend their property."
Federal law outlines that in any civil forfeiture proceeding when a claimant "substantially prevails," the government is "liable" for attorney fees.
"Brian’s attorneys requested $15,200 for the hours they had spent on his case. While the government only requested that the district court reduce that amount, the judge instead denied the payment of fees altogether, reasoning that Brian didn’t prevail since the court had not ruled on the 'merits' of the case. Because the government did not pay the fees, Brian owed his attorneys one-third of his returned money," the IJ reported.
Since many cash confiscations done by the government are for overall small amounts – from $8,000 to about $13,000, many owners "find it difficult or financially unfeasible to find someone to take on their case," the IJ said.
"If people like Brian cannot recover attorneys’ fees when they win their case, it would cost them more to fight the forfeiture than the value of the seized property. This helps explain why so many property owners fail to contest the forfeiture of their property, and more than 80% of federal forfeitures are administratively forfeited by the seizing agency rather than being litigated in court," the IJ said.
"The civil forfeiture system is already stacked against innocent property owners," said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. "If property owners cannot recover their attorney’s fees when they win their forfeiture case, that will make it practically impossible for most to defend against forfeiture. This will have the greatest impact on people like Brian, whose property is worth less than what they would have to spend on attorneys’ fees to recover."