On June 17, 2019, Curtis B. Simmons was preparing for a flight with JetBlue Airlines at Fort Lauderdale International Airport when two unarmed, plainclothes detectives approached him. The 32-year-old from Maryland had just purchased a ticket for a 7:15 p.m. non-stop flight to Los Angeles.
“I had missed my flight the day before, and I had to rebook with a different airline,” Simmons said in an interview with Vice. “As soon as I printed out my boarding pass, they surrounded me.”
According to a civil forfeiture complaint filed in Florida’s Broward County Circuit Court, deputies with a narcotics and money laundering task force led by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office stopped Simmons before he could go to security.
The deputies then questioned Simmons, and according to the complaint, he granted the cops permission to search his backpack and his carry-on suitcase. At that point, police allegedly “smelled a strong odor of cannabis” coming from Simmons and the clothing inside his suitcase. Simmons confessed to having smoked weed earlier but was not under the influence, and that although he didn’t have a medical card, he used cannabis to treat work-related pain, according to the complaint.
Although cops didn’t find any weed, they did find $6,290 in cash in Simmons’s pocket and another $5,000 in a pair of jeans in his carry-on, according to the complaint. A canine later confirmed the presence of “narcotics” on the money and, after asking Simmons “direct and simple” questions, cops said, they determined he was “exhibiting signs of deception and untruthfulness.”
Police said Simmons lied about when he purchased his ticket and how much money he had on him. They also claimed that he became visibly nervous, began to tremble, and continuously put his head down in an effort to avoid eye contact. Essentially, according to the report, he began to act as if he were actually high.
When police finished their on-the-spot interrogation, they told Simmons the $11,290 was being seized for civil forfeiture.
In the wake of the incident, VICE reviewed the Broward County court records and found the Sheriff’s Office has filed at least 15 other civil asset forfeiture complaints against 19 individuals since 2016, all under circumstances similar to Simmons’ case, including two seizures during the same week deputies took the money in Simmons’ possession.
It’s said in the past three years, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has seized $189,678 through this same process.
This task force apparently was created to cut off the money before drug exchanges even take place. But drug-war reformers and civil libertarians argue the Broward Sheriff’s Office is abusing Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act by catching individuals off guard in the anxiety-inducing confines of an airport.
It’s reported Simmons denied being involved in weed trafficking but said he didn’t protest the seizure of his money, which he claimed was intended to buy himself a Rolex in efforts to avoid missing his flight a second time.
“I didn’t know why this was happening, so that is why I was nervous,” he said. Simmons was not arrested on any weed or money-related charges or crimes.
Simmons said the officers had spread out all his belongings and counted the money for everyone to see. “It was embarrassing,” he said. “It seemed like they profiled me because they thought that [drug dealing] was the only way a black person could have that much money.”
Simmons says he felt intimidated, especially when the officers brought over the K-9.
“I didn’t know what would come next and what they would accuse me of,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything to piss them off.”
Of the 16 complaints filed by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, only three have been contested, and of those, the sheriff’s office settled and returned a portion of the money seized.