Couple has nearly $1 million seized by FBI – but they were never charged with a crime

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The following contains editorial content which is the opinion of the writer. 

SEATTLE, WA- Reason tells us the story of two Americans…Carl Nelson and Amy Sterner Nelson. The lives they led prior to the pandemic is a lot different, we’re told, than what it is today.

For one, they were forced to sell their house and car, liquidate retirement funds, and move from a comfortable home in Seattle to the basement of Amy’s sister.

Was this because their jobs were eliminated due to the pandemic? That would be almost understandable. In fact, it’s because despite never being charged with a single crime, the FBI seized nearly $1 million from the couple in May 2020.

This is not communist China or Russia we’re talking about. This isn’t Iran, or Afghanistan or North Korea. It’s the United States of America, where our citizens are supposed to be protected by the United States Constitution. For the Nelson’s, nothing could be further from the truth.

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Writing for Reason, Billy Binion says Amy Nelson told him that her belief in fairness has been eliminated.

“We went from living a life where we were both working full-time to provide for our four daughters to really figuring out how we were going to make it month-to-month,” Amy said. “It’s completely changed my belief in fairness.”

For reasons that are still unknown, the FBI decided to raid the Nelson’s bank accounts under so-called “asset forfeiture,” including savings Amy had managed to save from around ten years as a practicing attorney, and later on when she ran a company called The Riveter, the co-working startup she founded.

What makes this even more bizarre—and maddening—is the fact that the FBI didn’t ever suspect Amy of committing a crime. Conversely, it was her husband Carl who was being looked into, however nearly two years later, not a single charge has been filed against him.

The couple’s nightmare began in April 2020, when FBI agents showed up at their home and told them that Carl—a former real estate transaction manager for Amazon—was being investigated for allegedly depriving the company of something called “honest services.”

By way of explanation, he was basically accused of showing favor to certain developers and securing deals for them in exchange for illegal kickbacks.

“That never happened and is exactly why I’ve fought as long and hard as I have,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

It is unknown if the FBI drew the same conclusions, while their multi-year investigation has yielded nothing. That apparently mattered little to the feds, who came into their lives and turned it completely upside down, not only for the couple but for their four children. It cost them their home, their community, their jobs, their girls’ ability to continue attending their Seattle schools, and their future security.

Worse still, the FBI has basically admitted not needing to destroy the Nelson’s lives to complete their investigation nor interfere with any purported crimes being undertaken by Carl Nelson.

Just last week, the federal government agreed to a settlement of $525,000 out of the $892,000 it seized, while the couple will be forced to forfeit about $109,000. Reason notes that the remainder of the funds have been depleted by court fees.

It’s hard,” Amy said, while she said the couple is trying to recoup some of their lost assets using a GoFundMe fundraiser. Amy noted that “not much has changed” for the couple.

Carl still remains a defendant in a lawsuit filed against Amazon, and she said the only reason the couple accepted the settlement is in order to secure funding for attorneys’ fees.

She admitted that the settlement felt “like the beginning of some justice.” Sadly in the case of the Nelsons, justice means losing hundreds of thousands of dollars for absolutely no reason.

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Asset forfeiture has long been a controversial program, where law enforcement agencies are allowed to seize assets where those assets are allegedly used in the commission of a crime, either directly or indirectly. For the Nelsons, they are hardly alone.

There are numerous cases throughout the country where people have seen their property seized by law enforcement. One example is in Indiana, where Tyson Timbs sold drugs to an undercover officer in 2013. This was shortly after he had purchased a $42,000 Land Rover with the proceeds of a life insurance policy he received upon the death of his father. Despite the fact the vehicle was in no way involved with the drug deal, Indiana authorities seized the vehicle.

In Massachusetts, Malinda Harris had her car seized by the Berkshire County Law Enforcement Task Force in 2015 because her son was suspected of selling drugs.

Despite the fact Harris had let her son borrow the car, the police never alleged he had used it for drug dealing, nor did she know about his illicit activity. It wasn’t until October 2020 when she received a civil forfeiture complaint, five years after the car was taken.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows police to seize property when they have probable cause to believe it was used for drug trafficking. However after that happens, the burden of proof shifts to the property owner, who has to prove why the property isn’t subject to forfeiture.

A Nevada case saw Stephen Lara pulled over on February 19, 2021 ostensibly for a traffic offense. Lara consented to a search of the vehicle, whereby officers found some $90,000 in bundled cash in his backpack.

Despite not being arrested or charged with a crime, the money was claimed to have been used in drug trafficking and the cash was seized through asset forfeiture. Again, he had committed no crime.

While the government subsequently agreed to return his money, the fact it was taken in the first place is disturbing. The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on Lara’s behalf against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which had possession of the money for over six months after the traffic stop.

Sometimes the money or possessions are returned, such as in some of the above cases. Other times it is not. Usually it requires the filing of a civil suit in order to do so, which of course requires money.

“Civil forfeiture is quite common,” says Dan Alban, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that specializes in litigating similar cases. “The fact that the government can to this can obviously ruin lives, and it can ruin lives without anyone being convicted of a crime, without anyone even being charged with a crime.”

Alban refers to civil forfeiture as a “high-pressure tactic,” and is one of a number of tools in the government toolboxes, which often robs defendants of being able to stick up for themselves. Amy Nelson agrees, having experienced this up close and personal.

“If you can’t afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself, it becomes complicated.”

It is, however, a good deal for government agencies. Reason notes that among local, state, and federal governments, they have seized about $68.8 billion via civil asset forfeiture over the past 20 years, according to a recent report by the Institute for Justice.

“The vast majority of seizures and forfeitures…are driven by the profit incentive,” Alban said. “In most states and at the federal level, police and prosecutors get to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds. So they just have a very strong incentive to go out and seize whatever they can and try to forfeit it so that they can supplement their budget.”

The money can then be used as the agencies see fit and can be spent on equipment, facilities, and manpower. Reason noted that at times, they are also used on items such as gym equipment, which is an apparent misuse of the funds.

For the Nelsons, it isn’t only money and assets which they have lost, they believe, and it is not the only intimidation tactic the feds have used in an attempt to strong-arm Carl Nelson into buckling.

During the author’s interview, Amy gets upset only when she details the months where she had to wake up before sunrise, get the couple’s four young daughters ready and then driving them to a park far away from their home.

Why? Because the FBI had threatened to, if they received an indictment for her husband, to come to the couple’s home to affect an arrest, in front of his daughters. This despite a request for them to notify him so he could turn himself in…the FBI refused that request.

“Even talking to you now, Billy [the piece’s author], now that we have our money back, now that the government has said, ‘we don’t believe these are the proceeds of a crime’” said Amy. “I am frightened for retaliation. I am frightened of saying anything. Because this is incredibly scary.”

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