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August 2003
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*Law Enforcement’s Drug of Choice*

Law Enforcement’s Drug of Choice

Civil asset forfeiture is the most infamous game in law enforcement. In its pure form, seizing the luxury cars, boats, homes and cash of drug dealers can be a useful tool in taking profit out of crime. But in the real world, far too many police and sheriff’s offices use it to finance and enrich their operations, leading to startling abuses.

This is the beginning of “Law Enforcement’s Drug of Choice” – an article by Robyn Blumner which appeared in yesterday’s Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (originally published in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 17 as “Police too addicted to lure of easy money”).
A picture named forfeiture.jpg
Civil Forfeiture is one of the many abuses that have been linked to the government’s war on (some) drugs. Criminal Forfeiture requires that a defendent be convicted of a crime, and then their assets under certain situations may be seized. Civil Forfeiture, on the other hand, is a delightfully imaginative perversion of the Constitution which essentially states that:

  • You have $1,000 cash in your car.
  • Nobody has $1,000 cash unless they’re dealing drugs.
  • The money obviously must be guilty of being involved in a drug transaction
  • Money is not a person, and therefore is not entitled to constitutional rights or the same proof of guilt. You would have to prove that the money is not guilty.
  • We’re not going to charge you with a crime, because we have no evidence. However, we’ve determined your money is guilty, so we’re taking it.
  • Now we can buy that new radio for the police car we’ve wanted.

Obviously, civil forfeiture had to be very creative, and, once again, the government got through the objections of the courts by claiming that it’s a necessary tool for law enforcement to rid the country of the evil of drugs. And, once again, the Supreme Court grudgingly bought it, somehow deciding that the government’s assertions were more important than a couple of paragraphs written a long time ago…

Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V: …nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

As this civil forfeiture became popular, law enforcement realized that this was a potential goldmine to cover budget shortages or to increase staffing, or buy equipment (since the seized assets went to the law enforcement units). Soon, many units were dependent on a certain amount of seizures each year to meet the expanded budgets. This blatant conflict of interest has made it profitable to target arrests based on potential seizures (see the case of Donald P. Scott on my Drug War Victims page for a horrible example of this).
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, made possible by an amazingly diverse group of Senators, Representatives and organizations, reformed some of the problems, by shifting some of the burden of proof to the government and making it easier to reclaim improperly seized assets. However, the profit motive still exists.
Blumner continues by noting that, in order to try to curb the profit motive and stop abuse,

“Numerous states have enacted laws diverting some or all of asset-seizure profits into a state general fund or other specialized fund… But for nearly 20 years, the federal government has colluded with local law enforcement to skirt state law and put the money back into the pockets of the seizing agency.
Under the process known as adoption, the Justice Department actively encourages local policing agencies to turn over their seized assets. The department will then do the forfeiture and return 80 percent of seizure proceeds to the local agency. So for a mere 20 percent off the top, any pesky state laws can be circumvented.

Yes, the federal government flagrantly bypasses state law for profit!
There’s an organization leading the fight against civil forfeiture, called Forfeiture Endangers American Rights Foundation (F.E.A.R.). They’ve got a ton of resources on their site, including case law and background. Check out the Legal Information Institute’s article LII Backgrounder on Forfeiture for a good overview of the subject. Also of interest is “The Next Stage of Forfeiture Reform” by Eric D. Blumenson and Eva Nilsen, which gives some concrete suggestions for overturning forfeiture provisions, through legal defense strategies, and legislative efforts.
Oh, by the way… you might think that the reform act of 2000 had us headed toward reform… but that was before Patriot Act 1 and 2, Victory Act…

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