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A federal appeals panel has told the government for a second time that it did not have the right to seize cash from the owner of a Miami import-export firm merely because she was carrying a large amount. Drug Enforcement Administration agents did not have probable cause to take $242,484 from Deborah Standford at Miami International Airport in December 1998, according to an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Monday. The court 2-1 denied a U.S. Attorney request to rehear the Standford case. It ruled unanimously in January when it originally decided the case. The ruling signals shifting court treatment of forfeiture cases in light of a 2000 federal law making it more difficult for the government to seize money, property or other assets. The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA) placed the burden of proof on prosecutors to show that seized assets are fruits of criminal activity rather than forcing the assets’ owners to show that they are not. The seizure of Standford’s money came before Congress passed the law. But Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson of the 11th Circuit, who wrote the opinion denying the government’s petition for a rehearing, addressed the new law specifically: “We are especially reluctant to broaden the case law to enlarge the circumstances that make property subject to forfeiture … against the background of a Congress that was attempting to narrow its scope.” Douglas L. Williams, the Miami solo practitioner who represented Standford, called the ruling remarkable. “The chief judge says that they have read every case from every circuit on forfeitures and can find no case that would lend support to this forfeiture,” Williams said. “I’ve never heard of that.” Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to pursue the case further. Matt Dates, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Marcos D. Jimenez, said his office could request an en banc hearing in front of the entire 11th Circuit or could seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. A prominent Miami criminal defense attorney said Monday’s opinion was indicative of a change in judicial thinking. “It used to be that the government just had to show up and everything would be forfeited,” said Roy Black, senior partner at Miami’s Black Srebnick Kornspan & Stumpf. “Now, fortunately, it’s not like that.” Standford, an American citizen born in Suriname, is owner and president of Mike’s Import & Export U.S.A. Inc., whose primary business is exporting electronic, automotive and household goods to South America, according to the ruling. Florida corporate records list the business on Northwest 132nd Street in Miami. Standford was on her way home to Miami after a short trip to New York when baggage screeners at John F. Kennedy International Airport found two plastic-wrapped packages of cash in her carry-on luggage, one also wrapped in Christmas paper. The screeners allowed Standford to board the aircraft after asking her what the bags contained and notified the DEA in Miami. Agents met Standford at the gate and invited her to accompany them for an interview. The government contended that the cash was the proceeds of a drug transaction, based on the amount, its condition, the fact that she was traveling between Miami and New York and had missed a flight. In addition, prosecutors said, a drug dog alerted on Standford’s bag and she could not specify from whom she got the money. And a government database the agents consulted indicated that a similarly named company had been involved in money laundering. But those circumstances individually do not amount to suspicion of unreasonable criminal activity, according to the opinion. “They only hint at crime: a suggestion well short of showing probable cause that a ‘substantial connection’ exists between the funds at issue here and a narcotics transaction,” the opinion says. Neither Standford nor any of her associates have ever been convicted of a crime and agents who seized the cash did not charge her, according to the court’s opinion. Indeed, the court found, Standford regularly carried large sums of cash in and out of the U.S., declaring the amounts with customs as required by federal law.

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