ACLU of Nebraska Wins "Flying While Black" Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Nebraska
May 2, 2001 12:00 am

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LINCOLN, NE — A young African American businessman emerged victorious today in the ongoing battle against the practice of racial profiling. The Drug Enforcement Agency has agreed to return more than $7,000 that it seized from him while he was waiting to catch a plane at Omaha Eppley Airfield.

“Jacob King was an innocent victim of the so-called War on Drugs and racial profiling,” said Tim Butz, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska, which represented King.

“If Jacob were white, he would never have experienced the demeaning actions of the deputy, who questioned him, had his money sniffed by an dog, and then kept his money without just cause,” Butz said. “Although Jacob is not a criminal, his money was seized and he lost the opportunity to make an honest profit on a legitimate business deal.”

On June 5, 2000, King made arrangements to fly to from Omaha to Phoenix to purchase a car for his car cleaning and detailing business. He decided to purchase the car with cash so that he could complete the sale and return to Omaha without having to wait for a check to clear from an out-of-state bank.

When he went to the Southwest Airlines desk at Eppley Airfield, King paid cash for his ticket. While waiting for the plane to board, he was questioned by a sheriff who works on a federal task force at the airport.

The sheriff asked whether King had a large amount of cash with him. King told the deputy that he had about $7,000. The deputy then asked if he could see the cash, and when King displayed it, the deputy took it into another room. When the deputy returned, he told King that a drug dog had sniffed his money and signaled that it was tainted by drugs.

The deputy then told King that his money was being seized by the government as the proceeds of a drug trade. But King was allowed to leave the airport without being charged with any drug-related crime.

Although the ACLU presented the DEA with financial records to show that the cash was earned honestly, the agency declined to return the money and instead filed a lawsuit that would allow them to keep the money despite proof that it was legally earned.

“What happened to Jacob King is called civil forfeiture,” said Amy Miller, Legal Director of the ACLU of Nebraska. “Unlike a criminal trial where the government has to prove its case, hearings on civil forfeiture require people such as Jacob to prove the money is not proceeds from drug sales. It is a heavy burden for anyone in Jacob’s position, but he could show business records to account for every cent.”

In response to the DEA’s civil lawsuit, the ACLU challenged the timing of the seizure and said that the questioning of King was racially motivated, that the amount of money he carried was not any indication of drug-related activity and that the drug dog sniff test was inadequate to show the money resulted from drug dealing.

Expert studies have shown that 30 percent to 75 percent of all money in circulation is contaminated with drugs.

The government dropped its action after the ACLU’s motion was filed. The DEA recently notified the ACLU that they were sending a check for the entire amount seized.

“What happened to Mr. King is exactly why the Founding Fathers enacted the Fourth Amendment,” Miller said. “Our Constitution requires the government to follow the law, and that means it cannot retain your property without just cause.”

“The government knew it had a bad case on its hands and backed down only because Mr. King stood up for his rights,” she added.

Butz noted that King was the second person of color that month to have his money taken from him based on a sniff test by a drug dog. The other victim was a Hispanic traveler.

“Members of the drug task force seem to think that when a person of color has cash, they must be a drug dealer,” Butz said. “We have never heard of this type of action against white travelers at Eppley airfield.”

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