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When David Sampy found himself thrown against a wall by D.C. police early on a September 2003 morning, he could only think he’d been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moments later, when an officer pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and tossed it onto the pavement near 10th and U Streets NW, Sampy had another thought: “‘Oh man, don’t take my money,’” he recalls saying.

But take it they did. Though his charges were later dismissed, the 31-year-old freelance cameraman hasn’t been able to get his money back—more than $1,000, he says.

It’s a pattern familiar to many who have been arrested by the D.C. police department, according to Bill Chandler of the D.C. Jail Visitors’ Service Center. Chandler has helped D.C. Jail inmates with property issues for over three decades; he says that every year he comes across a few situations like Sampy’s among the hundreds of cases he deals with. “If it’s not the proceeds of the crime, they’re supposed to get their money back,” Chandler says. “[But] for reasons I don’t understand, they can’t get their money back.”

And it’s a problem widespread enough that Sampy’s lawyer, John Pierce, has filed a class-action lawsuit against the District and the police department on behalf of Sampy and others who have had their money wrongfully seized for forfeiture.

Sampy says he didn’t understand why Officer Anthony Hector arrested him until after he was handcuffed. Sampy, a Lanham resident, and friend James Thomas were having a cigarette near the entrance to the U Street– Cardozo Metro station when a police car drove slowly by. The two began to walk away, but within moments, about a half-dozen more cruisers had shown up, and Sampy and Thomas were against the wall.

When officers paraded him into the headlights of a nearby cruiser, Sampy heard somebody say the words “positive ID” over an officer’s walkie-talkie: He’d been fingered. “That’s when I realized I was being set up for something,” he says.

The officers made Sampy walk into the headlights to conduct a “show up.” Inside the cruiser sat Ross Wood, who had been mugged a little over an hour earlier on S Street NW while walking home from the Black Cat. His muggers—two black men whose descriptions matched those of Sampy and Thomas—had threatened to kick Wood’s ass unless he handed over all his cash. They took $160 and demanded his cell phone, but when Wood told them he’d rather keep it, they relented. He used it to call the police as soon as they left.

From inside the squad car, the police asked Wood if the two men in the headlights were his muggers. He said yes, and before Sampy and Thomas went off to jail, one of the cops peeled $160 from what he’d found in Sampy’s pockets and handed it to Wood—a tidy conclusion to the night’s drama.

A day later, when Sampy emerged from the D.C. Jail with a court date and a lawyer at his side, he received a property receipt claiming no money was to be returned to him. Later, with the help of his lawyer, Sampy received Hector’s report. It mentioned the $160 but no money beyond that. Hector, who did not return calls for comment, also noted that Sampy “likes to rob people.”

Two months later, Sampy received a notice from the department’s Property Division informing him of the department’s “Intent to Administratively Forfeit” another $220 that had been taken from him that night. If Sampy wanted his money back, the notice said, he would need to post a $250 minimum bond.

Problem is, that’s illegal. Under D.C. law, a person’s cash can only be seized by the city if it’s tainted in a certain way: It has to be the proceeds of drug trafficking, loan sharking, or gambling. Not robbery.

An even bigger flaw in the government’s robbery case against Sampy became apparent at trial, when Wood went to the witness stand. When D.C. Superior Court Judge Shellie Bowers asked him if he could identify the person who robbed him, he said he thought it was the guy sitting at the defense table. Bowers asked Sampy to stand so that Wood could be sure. Sampy rose, and Wood told the courtroom that he was the wrong guy.

“I almost yelled out and started heading for the door,” says Sampy, who had insisted on his innocence since he was arrested, even offering to take a polygraph test.

Sampy’s vindication led him to file a lawsuit against the District and the police department alleging due-process violations and theft of his property. The suit claims that police violated Sampy’s constitutional rights by illegally seizing his money and creating “onerous and unreasonable conditions” to discourage him from challenging the seizure—and that Sampy isn’t the only victim.

Pierce says that in January 2004, while discussing Sampy’s case, then– Assistant D.C. Attorney General William Bennett told him that this sort of thing happens “all the time.” On the basis of Bennett’s revelation, Pierce filed the class action, which claims that the police often submit ineligible money for forfeiture and deliberately do so “in increments that make it not worth fighting for.” A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office denies Pierce’s allegations.

The suit’s progress has been halted, Pierce says, by the police department’s slowness to cough up documents. No one has yet joined the class action. Similar allegations, however, pop up elsewhere.

A man who was arrested in April 2003 on drug charges and a parole violation says that officers removed $2,163 from his pockets. The drug charges were dropped, but a forfeiture notice nevertheless arrived at his Kingman Park home in June 2004. Like Sampy, the man—who requested to remain anonymous—was required to post a $250 bond to get his money back.

But he couldn’t have posted the bond even if he had wanted to: The parole violation had sent him back to jail. His lawyer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, attributes the department’s intent to forfeit his client’s money to bureaucratic incompetence. He says that police have since cooperated with efforts to resolve the case.

Lt. Derek Gray, head of the Evidence Control Branch, acknowledges that the department can make mistakes in these situations. “There should never be a case where money is forfeited in a robbery,” Gray says. It might happen, though, he says, due to paperwork or human errors. He stresses that a forfeiture notice is just a notice. “It’s not that we’ve already forfeited their money,” he says. If a person can prove that he received the notice in error, Gray says, the department will return that person’s money and apologize.

Sampy thought it so unlikely that he would succeed in getting his cash back, though, that he threw the notice away.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on Sampy’s case, but a January response from the office to Sampy’s lawsuit admitted what police previously denied: that Hector took $220 in addition to the $160 handed over to Ross Wood. So far, no police documents have surfaced indicating that Sampy had had more than $380 when he was arrested. Without corroborative evidence of his own, Sampy is not likely to see the rest of his cash ever again.

And Sampy hasn’t forgiven Hector for his police-report comment: “He likes to rob people,” he says.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Josh Neufeld.