It's legalized highway robbery and the thieves are the public servants charged with protecting the public
Everyone has heard the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” It is a right afforded to us by the U.S. Constitution that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to a trial before being subject to any monetary or penal punishment. However, both state and federal governments have come up with a little known but widely used practice that turns this constitutional right on its head.
The practice is known as civil forfeiture and it allows law enforcement to seize assets from individuals without ever being accused of a crime. In Michigan alone law enforcement used civil forfeiture laws to add $24 million dollars to its coffers.
Under civil forfeiture laws, police are permitted to seize cash and other property without a warrant or indictment. In fact, unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture requires no conviction. It is entirely up to the property owner to contest the property seizure and prove that the property was obtained legally. Usually police seizures focus on cash, property that is extremely difficult to verify as legitimately obtained.
The stories told by victims of civil forfeiture bear striking similarities. For example, a Michigan resident, Joseph Rivers, boarded a train from Dearborn to Los Angeles with $16,000 in cash that he had withdrawn from his bank in Detroit.
When the train stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a federal agent asked and he consented to a search of his bag. Once the cash was found the agent seized it despite Rivers not being charged with a crime or even being detained. Mr. Rivers has now hired a lawyer to help facilitate the return of his money but the process can take several months and cost him thousands of dollars just to keep what rightfully belongs to him.
In another case, 24-year-old Charles Clarke had $11,000 seized at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport in 2014, his life savings. Charles spent five years saving money from odd jobs, gifts from family and educational grants from attending college.
At the airport, officers seized the money because they claimed “his checked bag smelled like marijuana.” However, there were no drugs found or “anything illegal on his person, in his carry-on or checked bag. The government should have to prove that Charles committed a crime if it wants to keep his money.”
The point is, carrying cash is not a crime even if someone is carrying a large amount. According to End Civil Forfeiture “since the late 1990s, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport police took part in a couple dozen seizures per year-but by 2013 that figure skyrocketed to almost 100 seizures, totaling more than $2 million.” This figure represents enforcement efforts from only one airport.
It is not hard to understand why civil forfeitures have exploded in recent years. No one community escaped the economic downturn and many communities were forced to cut law enforcement personnel and budgets. Here in Michigan two communities, Detroit (just emerging from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history) and Wayne County (about to declare a financial emergency) led the state in the amount of property seized.
The two communities seized a combined total of almost $42 million dollars since 2001, under joint enforcement with federal agencies. This figure excludes enforcement under state action alone where again both communities also led the state in this figure. Most of the money seized goes directly to the law enforcement agencies responsible for the seizure and the agency is free to spend the money with little oversight.
The current state of civil forfeiture encourages law enforcement to continue and increase this practice. The freedom to seize property with no charges or warrant required leaves victims with the choice of hiring a lawyer to fight for the property back, which in some cases can take months and cost more than the amount seized or walk away allowing the police to keep their ill-gotten gain.
The police are left with a windfall in the budget that can be spent with little or no oversight and little accountability. The practice amounts to legalized highway robbery and the robbers are the very people charged with protecting the public.