A fellow blogger quipped, “There are three kinds of people in this world: Those who’re outraged by civil forfeiture, those who don’t know what it is, and those who profit from it.” Well, I’m going to explain it to you, and let’s see if you will join me in the outraged camp. Civil forfeiture, also known as asset forfeiture, is a tool that allows law enforcement officers to just take a person’s cash and property, without even pressing criminal charges. The owner of the property then has to prove to a court that their possessions weren’t illegal in order to get them back.
Sound backwards? It is. Let me show you how this plays out: Imagine a college student driving cross-country with a car jam packed full of items for her dorm room. Say that she gets pulled over for an improper lane change. The police could claim that the student’s destination, her messy car, and her electronic equipment in the backseat prompt suspicions that she may be a drug dealer. When the officers ask the driver if she is carrying a large sum of money, she admits to having $5000 on her, summer earnings she has saved to deposit in a bank account near school. Even though this driver has done nothing wrong besides a poor lane change, even without any evidence of drugs or drug paraphernalia in the car, even without anyone ever charging the driver with a crime, the police could opt to disbelieve her explanation about the money and simply take the $5000. The burden would then be on the student to return to the state she was just passing through and file suit for the return of her money. If she can prove in court that her money is not connected to any crime, she should get it back, though this would probably take years and require the assistance of a lawyer. Otherwise, the police department keeps the cash. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people who experience civil forfeiture never get their property back. And, as if that isn’t messed up enough, the truth is that the student in this example would be lucky that she only lost her $5000 – the police could have seized her car, laptop, cellphone, and electronic equipment as well.
For those of you thinking that I am picking on an obscure practice out of the mainstream: a 2014 Washington Post report found that since post-9/11 aggressive forfeiture practices, civil forfeiture cash seizures made without search warrants or indictments have totaled more than $2.5 billion. That’s a whole lot of seizures. Often times, the civil forfeiture victims are small business owners who have their bank accounts taken by the IRS, supposedly under suspicion of money laundering. And even though there isn’t evidence to support any kind of criminal charge, the victim is still stuck trying to prove his or her innocence in order to get back the money in the account.
And what happens to the money, homes, cars, and property seized by law enforcement? Well, for the most part, the police departments get to keep it to use, sell, or spend. Through something called “equitable sharing,” local law enforcement can work with federal agents, circumvent less permissive state forfeiture laws, and share the profits with the feds from whatever is seized. One deputy from Kane County, Illinois, who trains law enforcement on how to maximize civil forfeiture explains, “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.” Another civil forfeiture training video informs officers that the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods, but the remaining items must be sold at auction, so cellphones and jewelry are not worth the bother, but flat screen televisions “are very popular” items to take. In the short video below, a city attorney coaches law enforcement on how to get the best goodies, like a fancy BMW.
So, what do you think? Join me in the outraged camp? It’s a warped profit incentive that has law enforcement officers essentially shopping for assets to seize from people who have not been convicted of any crime.