The United States government and many states have given themselves the power to literally rob citizens. This is not some libertarian conspiracy-theory, it is true and happening with increasing frequency. With all the drama about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one thing that is not getting enough attention is his effort to ramp up the use of civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture is a little-known legal device that allows cops to take people’s property – their money, houses, cars, etc. – sell that property, and keep the profit. All the cops have to do to take any property is claim that it is “connected” to illegal activity.
Unfortunately, with this broad power are very few protections for citizens. Police can swipe the stuff without any charges being brought and without a conviction for any crime. They only need to “suspect” that the property is connected to the crime. And the legal hoops people have to jump through to try to get their property back are sometimes insurmountable—they are complicated, burdensome, and expensive. Basically, people have to hire lawyers and then prove their innocence, which is totally the opposite of how our justice system is supposed to work. As you can imagine, the abuses are rampant given the financial incentive for governments to profit off of citizens.
Police departments keep anywhere from half to all of the profits from this stolen property for their own budgets, funding whatever their department wants. In 13 states and the District of Columbia, agencies aren’t even required to report or keep records to show the value of the property they confiscate or why it was seized. This is the practice that AG Sessions plans to develop and increase.
Recognizing this problem of government theft from its citizens, the Obama administration sought to scale back civil forfeitures by decreasing the local law enforcement offices’ financial incentives to abuse the power. To do so, the administration ended a program called “equitable sharing,” which had created a loophole for local cops to seize assets and take the proceeds despite state laws that seek to prevent such abuses. “Equitable sharing” is basically a scam for the federal government to say that the taking of property was under federal law so that state law protections do not apply. This is the loophole Sessions is reviving. So now, even as states are trying to reign in civil forfeiture, Sessions is expanding it by letting local departments escape the state restrictions and essentially launder the money through the federal government. Apparently, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ professed belief in states’ rights only goes so far.
The rush to allow state-sanctioned theft leads to horrible results for people. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the problem, from 2002 to 2012, the City of Philadelphia took in over $64 million in civil forfeiture funds—or almost $6 million per year. The Institute for Justice filed a class action to challenge the process. The Philadelphia cops were going after people they believed to be small time drug dealers, first-time offenders selling small amounts of drugs outside of or near their homes. Even when the offenses were not serious enough to warrant a prison sentence or when the person allegedly committing the offense was just the child of the homeowners, the cops were using the accusations as a basis for seizing the homes.
In another example of the absurdity of state-sanctioned theft, a Texas police officer stopped James Leonard for a traffic violation during a cross country drive and found a safe in the trunk containing $201,100 and a bill of sale for a Pennsylvania home. Despite the bill of sale, the police concluded that the money was connected to selling drugs and seized the money, although James Leonard was never charged with any crime. James Leonard’s mother, Lisa Olivia Leonard, claims that the money was hers, from the sale of her house. She had to sue the government and try to prove her and James’ innocence of any uncharged drug offenses. She lost the lawsuit, and law enforcement kept her money. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear Ms. Leonard’s challenge seeking the return of her money.
This is not how American justice is supposed to work. Increasing the government’s ability to prey on people through expanding civil forfeiture is yet another horrifying legacy coming out of this (In)Justice Department.