Lots of cash equals guilty

Is it illegal to carry cash in this country?

In some places, apparently, yes. The mere possession of currency is taken to be evidence that you've done something wrong. Consider the case of Las Vegas trucker Eduardo Arencibia, who was pulled over in 2007 on Interstate 70 in Kansas by a Shawnee County deputy for straying outside the lane markings.

A search of the cab turned up a duffel bag and suitcase that contained a total of $552,000.

The county kept the cash. Mr. Arencibia was charged with transporting drug money.

In 2008, a judge dismissed the charges. But a second judge later ruled the county had a right to confiscate the cash under civil forfeiture statutes.

Civil forfeiture has been around since colonial times and is often used today by the authorities to take property they believe was used or acquired in the commission of a criminal offense. Under civil forfeiture, the asset itself is considered guilty and its owner must prove the asset is "innocent" in order to get it back.

It's a frighteningly powerful tool that can be easily abused and should be used extremely sparingly, if at all.

In Mr. Arencibia's case, the money was never taken to a lab to be tested and was later put back into circulation. The only evidence the money was connected with drugs was the reaction of a police dog.

So the police, for all intents and purposes, stole the cash.

"There is nothing illegal about possessing money," an attorney for Mr. Arencibia told The Associated Press. "There was not evidence to support he had done anything illegal."

Civil forfeiture cases are notoriously difficult to fight successfully. So instead of seeking a return of the $552,000, Mr. Arencibia is suing Shawnee County for $1 million, alleging officials violated his civil and constitutional rights during the traffic stop.

During the Clinton administration, Congress passed modest reform of the federal asset forfeiture statutes after numerous horror stories surfaced. If Mr. Arencibia's plight teaches us anything it's that those reforms didn't go far enough -- and that you had better faithfully observe all traffic laws if you're in possession of a large amount of cash.