We’re entrepreneurs, not criminals. Why did the government steal our money?

Did you know our own government can steal property from you, even if you’re innocent? We sure didn’t — until law enforcement in California seized thousands of dollars from us, and we hadn’t done anything wrong.

It was nothing short of terrifying — and it’s a lesson for every law-abiding citizen in America.

We’re Vera and Apollonia Ward, two sisters who live on opposite sides of the country (Vera in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Apollonia in Redondo Beach, California). Together we run a thriving dog-breeding business.

Late last year, we hired someone to find and purchase two new dogs, and sent them $17,500 in cash via FedEx. But our money never made it. Instead, the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office seized the funds at a FedEx facility in Stockton, California.

Law enforcement refused to return our money, and they wrongfully accused us of drug trafficking, too. That’s when the intimidation began. Truth didn’t matter. Our innocence didn’t matter. The government had all the power, and we had no idea what to do. They gave us a choice. We could either cave in to the government’s demands, say that the money wasn’t our money, and let them keep it — or we could stand up for our rights and risk our freedom.

It was crazy. We aren’t criminals.  We’re certainly not drug traffickers. We followed the law. We had documents showing where the money came from, and we could prove that our dog-breeding business was legitimate. But that didn’t matter to the government. They held all the cards.

How could the government do this to us?

It’s all because of a law called civil asset forfeiture. Under that law, the government can seize innocent people’s property if they merely suspect it was used to commit a crime. In our case, the government used the false “drug trafficking” claim to grab our money and scare us into saying the money wasn’t ours. When we refused, they pursued legal action that they knew would only be successful if we couldn’t find an attorney to help us.

For a while, no lawyers would take our calls. Thankfully, we obtained free legal aid from the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit organization that sues the government to protect people like us. The Goldwater Institute lawyer who represented us made it crystal clear to the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office that no crime had occurred. We got our money back — but we’re the lucky ones. Hiring a good lawyer can cost thousands of dollars, often far more than the amount the government stole in the first place. For many Americans, it’s simply not worth the fight.

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We’ve since learned that what happened to us isn’t a random, one-off case of bad luck. The government abuses its power to target innocent people across the country. In fact, over the past 22 years, law enforcement has seized more than $68 billion using civil asset forfeiture laws. It always made sense to us that police can seize criminals’ money when it’s being used for wrongdoing. We’re pro-law enforcement, and we think it’s important to equip police with the tools they need to crack down on crime. But we also believe in being innocent until proven guilty. But that’s not what’s happening with these laws.

The government thought they could intimidate us into going away quietly without putting up a fight. But that’s not the kind of people we are. We worked hard for everything we have. And when someone steals what’s rightfully ours from us, we’re going to defend our rights with every ounce of our strength.

That’s exactly what we did. Now, we want to make our voices heard so that our ordeal wasn’t in vain. We want everyone to know what’s happening to innocent Americans in California and across the country. And we want the government to stop using civil forfeiture laws to steal from law-abiding citizens.

Vera and Apollonia Ward are sisters who operate a dog-breeding business. Vera lives in Virginia, while Apollonia resides in Redondo Beach. The Goldwater Institute produced a video about their experience which can be viewed here.

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