Losing your property even when you're innocent

By Aaron Rice
December 19, 2019

In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Miladis Salgado’s home on a false tip that her estranged husband was dealing drugs. In the end, the federal government used civil forfeiture to take $15,000 from Salgado, a large portion of her life savings. 

Salgado knew she had done nothing wrong. So she fought back. And won.

But Salgado needed an attorney. She hired an attorney on contingency, and after two long years, the court was about to rule in her favor. That’s when the federal government folded. They admitted there was no evidence of a crime and agreed to return her money. 

But in doing so, they refused to pay her attorneys’ fee. Salgado petitioned the judge for the fees, but that request was denied because the government returned her money before a ruling, which would have triggered the government to pay those fees.  

That would leave Salgado with about $10,000 of her $15,000 the government took. The other $5,000 would go toward her attorney. Meaning, even though Salgado did nothing wrong and the government illegally took her property, she will still lose $5,000 just for fighting for her property that was rightly hers. 

The Institute for Justice brought Salgado’s petition for attorney fees to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Mississippi Justice Institute, along with other public interest law firms, filed an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief in support of Salgado.

“The government spent years trying to take Salgado’s cash,” the amici firms wrote. “It embarked on the all-too-common attrition-by-litigation strategy. Salgado was forced to bear the literal expense of defending against the government’s actions. Even though the government eventually dismissed its case and returned the cash, Salgado wound up with less money than she had before the DEA’s raid.”

The petition revolves around a profound question: When the government dismisses a forfeiture case it has spent years litigating, did the property owner from whom the property was taken ‘substantially prevail’ under federal law?


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