The life-changing experience of one Seattle, Washington, family is shining light on a practice being abused by federal officials.
According to Reason, Carl Nelson was working as a real estate transaction manager for Amazon. He lived with his wife, Amy Sterner Nelson, and their four daughters in a home in West Seattle.
Yet the family’s life was turned upside down when the FBI suddenly seized nearly $1 million from them over an unproven allegation.
In April 2020, federal agents arrived at the Nelson’s house to inform them Amazon had accused Carl Nelson of not providing “honest services,” Reason reported.
Specifically, Amazon alleged Nelson provided extra benefits or deals for certain companies that in turn provided him illegal kickbacks. Nelson has continually denied the allegations.
“That never happened and is exactly why I’ve fought as long and hard as I have,” Nelson said, according to Reason. “It’s that simple.”
Sadly for the Nelson family, the FBI did not need a conviction when they arrived at the family’s residence in 2020. They were allowed to seize approximately $892,000 in funds from the family.
“We went from living a life where we were both working full-time to provide for our four daughters to really figuring out how we were going to make it month to month,” Amy Nelson said. “It’s completely changed my belief in fairness.”
According to Reason, the FBI seized funds that did not even come from Carl Nelson, the alleged criminal. Instead, they took money from “nearly every corner of the Nelson’s world,” including savings from Amy Nelson that she accrued during her time as an attorney.
The FBI agreed last week to a settlement that would return $525,000 to the Nelson family, while the family would have to forfeit $109,000, Reason reported. The rest of the money has gone towards court fees.
Even so, this will hardly help life go back to normal, Amy said. The family has already been forced to sell their house and car, liquidate retirement savings and move into Amy’s sister’s basement. They were forced to remove their four daughters from the Seattle school they attended.
According to Bloomberg, Amy was forced to close the Riveter, a co-working start up that she founded focused on helping women. In addition, Amy said Carl is still embroiled in a massive lawsuit, and the $525,000 will likely go to attorney’s fees.
“It’s hard,” Amy said, according to Reason. “Not much has changed for us.”
Amy set up a GoFundMe to help the family try and survive such difficult times. As of Monday, it had raised about $70,000.
Almost two years after the FBI seizure, Amazon has still not levied a single criminal charge against Carl, Reason reported. However, a civil case Amazon brought against Carl and another former employee has seen plenty of drama in its own right.
According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. District Court Judge Liam O’Grady removed himself from the case in January 2022 after it was revealed that his wife held $22,000 in Amazon stock during the case. O’Grady had ruled in Amazon’s favor since the case began about 20 months prior.
O’Grady said he was reluctant to leave the case because his wife sold the stock in December, and he had previously denied knowledge of his wife’s holdings.
“However, perception of the fair administration of justice — both by the public and by the parties in the case — is of the highest importance to the Court,” he wrote, according to the Journal.
The Nelson are far from the only ones who have become victims of a practice known as “civil asset forfeiture,” Reason reported.
Americans across the country have had funds or possessions seized by federal officials without being charged with a crime in recent years, and Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban said the practice has plenty of precedent.
“Civil forfeiture is quite common,” Alban said according to Reason. “The fact that the government can do this can obviously ruin lives, and it can ruin lives without anyone being convicted of a crime, without anyone even being charged with a crime.”
Alban said civil forfeiture is a very profitable venture for many government agencies.
“The vast majority of seizures and forfeitures … are driven by the profit incentive,” he said. “In most states and at the federal level, police and prosecutors get to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds. So they just have a very strong incentive to go out and seize whatever they can and try to forfeit it, so that they can supplement their budget.”
Unethical as that may be, the effect the practice has on families is arguably even more concerning, Amy told Reason.
“If you can’t afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself, it becomes complicated.”