HOUMA – Former area convenience store owner Mohamed Nagi and his family are appealing an approximate $1 million in civil forfeiture stemming from a June 2013 synthetic marijuana raid and appear to have a heavy burden of proof, a spokesman for an activist group said during a recent interview.
FreedomWorks Director of Communications, Public Policy and Legislative Affairs Jason Pye told the Louisiana Record that the group's southeast region hasn't been following Nagi's case, but whether he'd been convicted would play an important role in the case.
"If Mohamed Nagi is claiming that he's an innocent owner, the burden of proof falls on him, not the government, which throws the presumption of innocence, a bedrock legal principle in the United States, out of the window," Pye told the Louisiana Record.
Nagi and members of his family were among those arrested in a narcotics operation that targeted local convenience stores. At the time, law enforcement claimed to have broken up a covert drug operation with ties to the Middle East when the Terrebonne Sheriff's Office arrested 11 people allegedly dealingdrugs out of three area convenience stores.
Terrebonne Assistant District Attorney Jason Lyons successfully filed for approximately $1 million in civil forfeiture against Kee Food, South LA, Kassim Nagi and his father, Nagi, who owned the store. The forfeiture was divided between the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office, the district attorney's office and a district criminal court account.
On Aug. 19, a jury found Kassim Nagi guilty of racketeering, money laundering and drug charges but also handed down a verdict of not guilty in drug charges against his brother Abdulqawi Nagi. Other defendants still await trial.
While the Nagi family case is getting some attention, it's difficult to say how illustrative their situation is within civil asset forfeiture in Louisiana, Pye said.
"It's extraordinarily difficult to say because law enforcement in Louisiana isn't required to report whether charges were filed in any forfeiture cases," Pye said. "But we do know that there is a perverse profit motive present in Louisiana forfeiture law that allows seizing agencies to receive 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds."
Three provisions in Louisiana's civil forfeiture laws make it very difficult for property owners to successfully appeal the seizure of their property. Under standards of proof, law enforcement only need to show that the property was used in a crime based on a preponderance of evidence. Under the innocent owner burden, if someone besides the owner uses the property to commit a crime, law enforcement may seize the property. Under police profit incentives, law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds from the sale of forfeited property. Between 2000 and 2014, Louisiana district attorneys forfeited more than $99 million, more than 88 percent of which came from cash forfeitures.
Louisiana law enforcement has been accused of stopping innocent motorists and seizing their property.
There are not clear signs of reform in Louisiana's civil forfeiture laws, Pye said.
"That remains to be seen," he said. "If legislation is introduced, it should raise the evidentiary standard to clear and convincing or tie forfeiture to a criminal conviction. Currently, only a preponderance of the evidence is required, which is a very low standard. Any legislation should also shift the burden of proof to the government and eliminate the profit motive that comes with forfeiture."