She delivered $200 worth of drugs. Police seized her $53,000 Chevrolet Tahoe.
Leslie Mayo’s ex-husband called in 2017, telling her he had bumped into an old friend from the ’90s named Moe who wanted to hang out. The call was forgettable but for the fact that Mayo couldn’t recall the man.
It turns out there was a good reason: Court documents show that her ex-husband is a paid informant for local police and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Moe was really an undercover Fairfax County police detective.
Mayo was being set up.
The sting that unfolded in the months that followed provides an unusual window into the murky world of undercover drug busts and police seizing property they believe was used in a crime, which is known as civil asset forfeiture. The practice, which doesn’t require an arrest, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.
Mayo, who had no felony record and was found by a judge not to be a regular dealer, was arrested for facilitating the sale of $200 worth of crack. She made no money, but police confiscated the $53,000 Chevrolet Tahoe she used to deliver the drugs from a dealer to the undercover detective.
Mayo, 51, pleaded guilty to felony drug distribution earlier this year and admits she made a mistake but said it was excessive for police to take a vehicle worth 265 times more than the 2.72 grams of crack she was convicted of distributing. So Mayo fought the police in court to get her Tahoe back and a judge came down on her side.
“I made a very poor choice in judgment,” Mayo said. “My ex-husband didn’t put a gun to my head and neither did the detective. But I do feel taken advantage of.”
Fairfax County prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling and police issued a brief statement: “We respect the judge’s ruling.”
After the call from her ex-husband, Mayo said Detective Edgar Gay began calling her directly in January 2018, playing the part of Moe. Mayo’s ex-husband had told her Moe had a crush on her back in the day. Moe made small talk and asked Mayo to hang out.
Mayo, who lives in Reston and is an unemployed network engineer, said Moe eventually asked her if she knew anyone who could supply him with cocaine or crack. Mayo said she did not and told Moe that she couldn’t help him. She said she deleted his number from her phone afterward.
Several weeks later, on Jan. 22, 2018, Moe called again asking for a drug hookup as Mayo was driving with a friend in her black 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe, she said. The friend overheard the conversation and said he could help out, Mayo said.
Moe spoke to Mayo’s friend and arranged to purchase crack. After some back-and-forth about logistics, Mayo said she agreed to purchase the crack with her own money and deliver it to Moe, who would reimburse her.
Mayo met with the detective at a Herndon shopping center later that day and exchanged the crack for $200, she said. She said that Moe approached her for more drugs on later dates but that she refused.
Mayo said she took part in the drug deal because her ex-husband had asked her to help Moe out. After the divorce, she remained on good terms with him. Her ex-husband did not return calls for comment. They have adult children.
Fairfax County police served a search warrant on her home about a month later that did not turn up any drugs. Mayo was charged with felony distribution and her Tahoe was seized.
This past February, Mayo’s attorney, Bob Whitestone, argued in court that the seizure of the Tahoe violated the Eighth Amendment, which bars the government from levying excessive fines. At the hearing, Gay testified, largely confirming Mayo’s version of events. Fairfax County prosecutors argued for the seizure.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Michael F. Devine said he would issue a ruling after receiving legal briefs from both sides, noting his decision could be “potentially precedent setting in the Commonwealth.”
Mayo pleaded guilty to one count of felony distribution in March, and Devine gave her a five-year suspended sentence in May. He also issued his ruling at the end of May on the seizure of the Tahoe.
Devine found that Mayo’s offense was “relatively minor” and that the seizure met the Supreme Court’s standard for an excessive fine, which is being “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of the defendant’s crime.
“She is not regularly engaged in the business of distributing drugs, and had it not been for the involvement of the owner’s ex-husband claiming he was seeking help for a friend, it is unlikely the owner would have committed this offense,” Devine wrote in his ruling.
[Supreme Court limits power of states and localities to impose fines, seize property]
Coincidentally, the Supreme Court issued a ruling just months earlier, saying the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to local and state governments as well. The ruling makes it easier for critics of civil asset forfeiture to challenge seizures. That case bore a striking similarity to Mayo’s: Police in Indiana confiscated a man’s $42,000 Land Rover after he was caught selling a couple hundred dollars’ worth of heroin. The Supreme Court did not weigh in on whether the seizure was excessive in that case.
Law enforcement officials say civil asset forfeiture is a powerful tool for undermining criminal networks, but critics have argued it is rife with abuse by police departments looking to fill coffers.
A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that law enforcement conducted nearly 62,000 seizures of property since Sept. 11, 2001, taking $2.5 billion worth of property without an indictment or search warrant.
Mayo said she has been chastened by the experience. She wishes she had never made that decision to deliver the crack.
“I’ve been in a mental prison inside my home,” she said.