Arizona targets bank deposits suspected to be smuggling cash

MESA, Ariz. -- Authorities have seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year from bank accounts they allege were being used to funnel payments to human and drug smugglers, the Arizona Attorney General's office confirmed.

The seizures are the latest effort by authorities to stem the flow of money to smugglers who have made Phoenix a staging area for their trade.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard's office has seized millions in Western Union money transfers sent to the state since 2001, and expanded the practice last year to target transfers from other states to Mexico.

The out-of-state seizures were barred by a Maricopa County judge in January who called the practice an overly broad warrant targeting people without showing they had committed crimes and a violation of interstate and international commerce protections under the U.S. Constitution.

Goddard said he plans to appeal, but his office also is being sued by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in federal court over the practice, which it alleges sweeps up thousands of innocent people.

Now Goddard is targeting bank accounts, too.

Search warrant affidavits filed in Maricopa County Superior Court show investigators believe human smugglers have moved to traditional banks, setting up accounts here and having customers or co-conspirators wire money into those accounts from other states. The account owner usually withdraws the cash immediately, they say.

Smugglers "don't like the banks as much because they require identification," Goddard said, but they're still using them.

"Hundreds of thousands of dollars in currency were funneled to receivers in Arizona from other states, and no money was deposited in Arizona for the purpose of being withdrawn in the other states," wrote Phoenix police Detective Tim Burk in one affidavit.

Investigators asked three banks in January 2006 to look for that kind of account, and they "located hundreds of such accounts in their systems," Burk wrote.

Goddard's office has executed four seizure warrants targeting 40 accounts between June 30 and Feb. 5, seizing $386,053 and getting court approval for $131,112 in forfeitures so far, said spokeswoman Andrea Esquer.

To get the money back, the account holder has to call a toll-free number and undergo questioning by a detective who decides if the account is legitimate. The money is returned if the officer thinks no laws were broken.

But if the detective decides the account is questionable, the holder must go to court to have the money returned.

Mary Rowland, an attorney for the Illinois group suing Goddard, said the new tactic targeting bank accounts may contain some of the same constitutional problems as the Western Union warrants that are the subject of the lawsuit.

She said the warrants seem to violate the due process clause and Fourth Amendment.


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