Another consequence of the proliferation of bad laws is that police and prosecutors can now legally steal a person’s possessions – cash, cars, even homes – under an obscure process known as “civil forfeiture” that requires no proof of wrongdoing. Under these laws, many people every year are robbed blind by the police without charges ever being filed against them and without any evidence of a crime being committed.
These laws were originally put in place to give police a tool for recovering drug money and assets from criminals who were outside their jurisdictions. But the same laws that make it hard for the heads of criminal organizations to recover confiscated assets have made it extremely difficult or impossible for ordinary people to fight a civil forfeiture. With no evidence required, and little chance of being confronted, many police departments have found the temptation of free money irresistible and have expanded seizure operations into what amounts to a criminal mob operation under cover of law.
This has become a huge source of revenue for police departments, many of which are now utterly dependent on seizures for their budgets, paychecks, and perks. Last year, civil seizures brought in $4.2 billion just at the federal level. The total at the state level is unknown, but is almost certainly much more. Small communities that straddle major highways can extract millions of dollars a year from travelers without anyone seeing a judge, lawyer, or courtroom, and many such communities have turned it into a brazen racket, but even big city police departments openly stage raids purely for the purpose of coerced confiscations.
If this sounds as unbelievable to you as it did to me, I urge you to Google “civil seizures” and read the recent news stories about Detroit, Washington DC, Tenaha, TX, and other places where this practice has finally come to light. What is truly shocking about it is that even after the gangster-like behavior of the police has been well documented, many have defended the practice as an essential way to fund law enforcement.
In Sarah Stillman’s long, thoughtful piece on the subject, she quotes Steve Westbrook, the executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas: “We all know the way things are right now—budgets are tight. It’s definitely a valuable asset to law enforcement, for purchasing equipment and getting things you normally wouldn’t be able to get to fight crime.”
Budgets may indeed be tight, but that is no reason to give police a license to steal whatever they want, with no supervision or burden of proof. Additionally, allowing the seized money and property to go directly to the police, often in the form of unregulated slush funds and large personal bonuses, is a temptation to corruption that is intolerable in a free society.
However, the root causes of the problem are the drug laws, the extreme proliferation of statutes, the severity of mandatory sentences, and the enormous coercive power this gives both police and prosecutors. In the typical seizure case, the police threaten to charge their victims with crimes punishable with decades in prison if the victims dare to protest or try to get their property back. They also often threaten to take their victims’ children away. Even if the charges are entirely false, without any evidence, most people are terrified of facing that kind of risk and give in without a fight.
Civil forfeiture laws date back to the days of piracy, when a pirate ship might be seized even though its owners escaped. The intent was to allow authorities to take away the tools or proceeds of crime even when the criminals were out of reach of the law. At minimum, civil forfeiture laws need to be limited to that situation and forbidden in cases where the supposed perpetrator is available and can be arrested and charged.
Instead, we now have thousands of cases in which people are actually in police custody and are then released if they “voluntarily” surrender their vehicle, any valuable possessions, and all their cash. If, in fact, these people are criminals, they should be arrested and tried. Turning criminals loose in return for cash and valuables is uncomfortably close to a third-world level of police bribery. And if they are not criminals, this is theft, pure and simple, and the police have become the predators, not the guardians, of the public.
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