Civil asset forfeiture allows cops to seize cash and/or property from those deemed guilty until proven innocent, and in some cases, all they need is a thin veil of probable cause to do so. They don’t even need a warrant. What’s more, authorities are not only able to take what they like from these presumed criminals, they’re also legally allowed to keep it – anything from money, to vehicles, to entire homes – and the practice has been on the rise, showing a “meteoric, exponential increase” over the last decade, according to a recent report by the non-profit civil liberties law firm Institute for Justice.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the chronic civil asset forfeiture is that one does not even need to be charged with a crime, much less convicted of one.
Institute for Justice report co-author Dick Carpenter believes at least one explanation for the dramatic rise in civil asset forfeitures is due to the “lean economic years” 2008 to 2014 have posed, stating, “Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue streams flowing when budgets are tight.”
“With government unable to pay police as much as they need or would like, police are confiscating their revenue directly from the populace,” Bloomberg reports, and as far as a 2014 Washington Post report is concerned, “a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms” is behind it all.
“A thriving subculture of road officers… now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing ‘trophy shots’ of money and drugs.”That same Washington Post report quotes Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., as stating in a self-published book he wrote under a pseudonym, “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.” In that book, Hain urges “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”
The same failure in funding our infrastructure that sends our public schools begging for their very survival now has our police forces robbing from the citizens they are designed to protect in order to pay their own wages, and somewhere along the line, they started getting carried away.
Thousands upon thousands of citizens have been forced to either suck it up and take the loss or attempt fighting the issue in court, attempting to regain their seized assets. Frequently, the value of the assets seized is of such a small amount, however, that a pricey court battle is not worth the effort, so cops win by default. Though the value of seized assets can vary, forfeitures can average anywhere from $650 to $1,250, but even be as small as a single dollar. Done enough, however, it adds up quickly.
Furthermore, authorities found to have seized assets unjustly almost never receive any form of discipline for their actions.
There are double-standards, too. In Washington D.C., for example, owners of seized property only have 30 days to contest their forfeiture; whereas, the city has an entire year to file its civil forfeiture action against an alleged suspect, and they can sit on the owner’s assets the entire time. Nor do they even have to take good care of it. Sean Day, co-counsel to a class-action lawsuit against D.C. for its civil asset forfeiture practice, says, “It’s become a cash cow for a lot of jurisdictions, frankly.”
There is also a federal loophole commonly known as “equitable sharing” that police departments can use to sidestep state and local civil forfeiture laws, allowing them to tap into a slice of the economic pie by utilizing federal civil forfeiture laws. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-MI., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY., put forth legislation in 2014 in the hopes of restricting, or even eliminating equitable sharing, however, with Walberg calling his bill “common-sense” because it “does not detract from good law enforcement,” adding that Americans should be able to live “without the fear of overweening government.”
Even more aggravating is the fact that victims of civil asset forfeiture in places like D.C. who wish to fight for their right to win back their own property may be faced with a fee to even begin the process. They must pay 10 percent of the value of their seized assets before they can begin proceedings, ranging from $250 up to $2,500. Failure to pay means the authorities automatically win and get to keep the seized property.
Additionally, once one pays the 10 percent fee and makes it into court, the burden of proof then rests on the shoulders of the robbed citizen, who has to prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that they have absolutely no connection to criminal activity in order to win back their property, which is a great deal more evidence than a department, such as D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), needs to show in order to keep it. Citizens also do not have a right to any form of court-appointed counsel since these matters play out in civil, rather than criminal court. If you’re too broke to pay to fight, you lose by default.
Fortunately, 36 states ask for a little more evidence than Washington D.C. before the system is willing to look the other way regarding citizen’s pilfered property, but the fact remains that U.S. citizens are being robbed blind, and the greater culprits are not bandits in black masks and knit hats, but our good old boys in blue.