Civil Forfeiture: The Legal Way to Steal

 

Over three decades ago, under President Ronald Reagan, the United States’ government commenced its War on Drugs. Through this initiative, a principle known as civil asset forfeiture came to rise, which allowed law enforcement to seize a person’s property without charging them with any crime(s). Despite originating as an effort to confiscate suspected drug money or vehicles, thus hindering drug dealing circles, civil forfeiture has escalated into a spiraling orb of governmental abuse, theft, and blatant injustice, with cops now being entitled to your cash, vehicles, real estate, bank accounts, firearms, and so on, without a criminal conviction.

Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, President George Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and launched the (now popular) War on Terror. He allocated a massive budget for this new bureaucracy and empowered all forms of state and local law enforcement to assist the federal government in detecting/detaining potentially suspicious individuals. This effort essentially lacerated the underlying intention of civil forfeiture by placing opportunity for police power on a silver platter. Through the work of the Washington Post’s investigative journalists, the team was able to accumulate information from the Department of Justice— accentuating the alarming reality of this growing concern.

According to the Post’s findings, just shy of 62,000 seizures have been made without warrants or indictments. Together, these 62,000 seizures have resulted in the collection of $2.5 billion–$1.7 billion of which was given back to the respective law enforcement agencies. It has been found that of the $134.2 million that the NYPD collected in seizures lacking arrest, $27 million was given back to New York City’s finest. Los Angeles County Sheriffs received $24.3 million of the $126 million they collected. Los Angeles Police received $18.4 million of the $86.1 million they collected. Houston Police received $14.7 million of the $63.3 million they collected, among many other law enforcement agencies nationwide.

In 1985, the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund was recorded as $24 million for the year—in 2013, however, that number grew to over $2 billion. What is so tempting about taking people’s cars’ and money? Well, in New York City, records show that forfeiture funds were spent on food, gifts, and entertainment. In Georgia, forfeiture funds were spent to buy football tickets for the District Attorney’s office, and in Texas, this money was used to fund television ads for the District Attorney’s reelection.

Creation of stop-and-seizure programs have been supported by the United States Congress, and over the past decade, have been implemented into modern day policing. Programs such as Desert Snow have worked with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to train tens of thousands of law enforcement officers on stop-and seizure techniques, branding themselves and their work as “counterterrorism efforts.”  Desert Snow, a family owned company, has won millions in federal contracts to teach police officers “the art of roadside asset forfeiture.” In the five years that Desert snow was training these law enforcement officers, they were able to seize a total of $427 million. Desert Snow charges less than $600 to train these officers, and although these numbers may come off as being proof of a “successful investment,” most would disagree.

These Black Asphalt intelligence networks have seen 32% jumps since 2005—this is three times the rate of their police departments. With these officers getting more and more aggressive, there number of innocent people having their money taken away is following suit. It has been noted that majority of the people whom are judicially challenging seizures in federal courts are Black, Hispanic, or other minorities. People are being stopped and having their life savings sometimes taken away.

Tan Nguyen, for example, was driving home after winning $50,000 at the casino. Despite having the receipt, law enforcement still confiscated the money and threatened to tow Nguyen’s vehicle if he “spoke up about it.” By shelling out some money to hire an attorney, Nguyen got his money back nearly one year later. Another example of common types of unjustifiable civil forfeiture was when Detroit police raided The Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit’s monthly party. Although there wasn’t physical cash to take from the invitees, law enforcement decided to instead impound 40 vehicles. Each car owner had to pay a $900 impound fee, which resulted in $35,000 more dollar’s in Detroit’s pocket.

George Reby has $22,000 in cash taken from him in Monterey, Tennessee while he was on his way to buy a used car of eBay. He provided the officers with proof of the active bids, but regardless failed in dissuading the officer. A family in Philadelphia had their home seized after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of heroin. Despite the parents having no knowledge about their son’s activities, their home was lost nonetheless. Keep in mind that Desert Snow was intended to stop terrorism… What any of these seizures have to do with terrorism is still unknown…

There are an innumerable number of cases in which innocent people are subjected to this legal form of robbery. New Mexico has been the only state to abolish civil forfeiture after the government took $800,000 from an Albuquerque man’s used car dealership. The adverse affect that his confiscation took on his health and business enticed New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez to illegalize the practice entirely. In Montana, state Governor Steve Bullock recently signed a law that required a criminal conviction to be obtained prior to seizing a person’s property through civil forfeiture. Although steps are being taking in the right direction, there still is not a clear answer as to when this abuse will come to end.