Cops Can Just Take Your Stuff: The Injustice of Civil Forfeiture

Imagine that you’re driving across the United States with $2500 in cash. Maybe it’s a deposit on a new apartment; it doesn’t really matter – it’s yours and it’s all legally acquired. You get pulled over. You weren’t speeding, but this stretch of highway has been used by drug runners before, all of whom were regular people driving regular cars, just like yourself. The fact that you’re not doing anything suspicious is highly suspicious. When they discover the cash their suspicions are confirmed – you are now definitely, definitely involved in the drug trade, but you’re not under arrest or even accused of a crime. Your $2500 cash is gone, though, but the local police department doesn’t have to stop there. Since your car was being used to transport the money, it can be seized too. Your phone could have been used to call your drug cartel contacts, so it belongs to them now. You’re not on trial: your car, phone and money have to prove that they are not involved in anything illegal, leading to bizarre legal cases like State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird.

This is civil asset forfeiture, and it brings two billion dollars in to US police departments every year, with more coming in to the Canadian provinces that have also adopted the practice. The idea seemed logical when it started in the eighties at the height of both Reagan’s get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and the birth of the crack-cocaine epidemic: allow police to seize the Escalades and white tigers drug dealers were buying – don’t just take away the guns and kilos of uncut Peruvian flake, but also the plastic baggies and weight scales, all the mundane items that make the drug trade possible.

Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

The money was supposed to be funneled back into law enforcement; drug dealers would do time in jails paid for by the proceeds of their crime, instead of taxpayer money. In practice, because there’s so little oversight on where this money goes, it is used for Christmas parties, flowers, crab cakes in champagne sauce or a new security system for the DA’s home. These were justified as measures to reduce turnover. A small town Sheriff who seized a Rolls Royce from a drug dealer ended up using it as his personal vehicle. In Monroe, North Carolina, police proposed buying a surveillance drone with the cash they’d seized.

The big ticket items might make the news, but civil asset forfeiture overwhelmingly affects the poor. Guilty or innocent, the rich can afford lawyers, whereas the poor have no option but to not contest anything the police want to throw at them. For this reason, local police departments are filling up with phones, DVD players and pocket change. If I wasn’t so certain that police officers only want to protect and serve their communities and would never use their powers to enrich themselves, then I might suggest that a large number of small seizures makes it easy for items to go missing.
Like much of the drug war, civil asset forfeiture is a feedback loop. The funding that it adds to police departments is used on more expensive and sophisticated equipment, used for finding new sources of funding. The money embezzled for fancy parties and football tickets encourages the worst kind of people to become police. Because they can’t spend all of their seized money on crab cakes, they find ways to spend it on toys: military surplus guns, tactical armour, high technology. As anybody who has turned on the TV lately has seen, there are serious consequences when the police see themselves as an occupying force. Money taken from poor communities keeps them trapped in cycles of poverty, where the only way to make fast, easy money is the drug trade – unless they have their homes seized (it’s easy to turn a house with the faint smell of marijuana into a ‘drug den’), in which case they’re out onto the streets. Even those with the means to fight can face hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees with no guarantee that they’ll ever see their assets again.

The problem isn’t an easy one to solve. There really are some assets that need to be seized from actual criminals, and that money could go to supplement the already over-stretched budgets of police departments. Making police departments account for every cent that they receive from civil forfeiture, including information on who they’re getting it from (including their race) would go a long way to preventing the worst abuses, but right now police departments whine that recording the details of every person they kill is unnecessary interference. This looks to be another awful thing that powerful people do to powerless people, one which we will just have to put on the back burner until things get better.

Links:

http://www.wsj.com/

http://www.drugwarfacts.org

http://www.cato.org/

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The Author

Gareth Watkins

Gareth Watkins

Born and raised in the UK, moved to Calgary, Alberta for the weather. Currently writing for this publication and others while working on a book.

1 Comment

  1. February 19, 2015 at 11:21 pm — Reply

    This article is a beautiful example of how ideology turns potentially important real issues into melodramatic simplistic fear mongering.

    Like the opening paragraph. When did that ever happen? Show the exact real life example of that happening. That link for the NJ case, the car WAS being used in a crime, although I totally understand the issue in it, it has literally nothing to do with the authors introductory scenario which leads one to believe that it is mere paranoid delusion.

    As far as spending money to justify budgets, yeah that happens in all aspects of life outside mommy’s basement, and to analyze how it affects the poor would be very interesting and important, but the author just continues to sabotage his own maturity by making bizarre and completely baseless assumptions. Such as …

    “The money embezzled for fancy parties and football tickets encourages the worst kind of people to become police.” Huh? What? If this is such a secret embezzling operation then how is it encouraging people? Like what a completely absurd and baseless statement.

    What is really going on here is, the author is exploiting his own article to misguidedly bash law enforcement for doing what he is too ignorant to realize is necessary. I mean in a world full of internet crime, terrorists, active shooters, why would a police department need “high technology” or “weapons” or forbid the thought “armor”! Like seriously? Unless you just like the idea of cops being killed, how could anyone protest armor?

    My absolute favorite part of this article though is the final paragraph. The author completely contradicts his entire point by facetiously stating, “right now police departments whine that recording the details of every person they kill is unnecessary interference” Obviously he is referring to body cameras and that “whining” he mentions has a lot to do with logistics, legality, and BUDGET!

    OKAY, LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT … The author criticizes Police Departments for justifying large budgets for buying “high technology”, but then criticizes Police Departments for not having the budget for buying what is “high technology”.

    There are some legitimate points in this article such as accountability and what not but a lot of it, falls under the spell of ideology. In this case, the idea that in order to be “punk rock” you have to force yourself to criticize (or plainly hate) cops with completely biased and misguided reasons …

    The truth is, society has issues, and naturally government is apart of that, but to blindly blame, promote hate, and spread outright disinformation against an entire occupation of people such as law enforcement and treating such as scapegoats will only lead to ignorance. Like ALL prejudice always does.

    P.S. I am not even going to get into the easily essay long rant as to why even the inclusion of that Jessica Rinaldi picture is in itself an indictment of the credibility of this article …

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