By: Michael D. Jacobsen
Staff writer at Fighting the Tyranny
You have just had a great string of luck at the casino. You wanted to go back home with a wad of cash and just enjoy the fact that you are coming home a winner. Who wouldn’t, right? Sadly the rear brake light decided to go out during the trip. An officer notices and pulls you over. During the traffic stop, the officer casually inquires about what you were doing and where you are going? “I’m headed home, I just won a ton of cash at the casino! When I get home I am going to go back out and celebrate!”
That is as far as the good time lasted, because the officer, with no real probable cause, decided he should seize your money with zero evidence that you were doing anything wrong. Seems like fiction, does it not? Yet, this has been a reality to quite a few people. And instead of being a few isolated incidents, this is becoming more and more common.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process, though unconstitutional, in which officers can seize cash or other assets (such as a car or boat) without charging the owner with any wrongdoing. The only threshold for the action is that an officer merely needs to suspect the person was somehow involved in a crime. The bar for what constitutes an officer suspecting a person was involved in a crime is so low that virtually any excuse can be used to take a person’s property.
Originally devised as a deterrent to stop the drug trade, this action, which only started in a few states, has now grown by leaps and bounds across America. Civil asset forfeiture is allowed in every state with the reasons for the seizures alone being unconstitutional. However, many states have started to pass laws to increase the burden of proof required to take away a person’s property. A detailed look at various state’s rules regarding this process can be found here.
The main reason why states are cracking down on the civil asset forfeiture laws is simply that in many states the police have become way out of hand with what they seize. In fact, in 2014, law enforcement seized more money from Americans than burglars did. In 2008, the amount of money seized in total by forfeiture was 1.5 billion in total. By 2014, the total would reach 4.5 billion in seized assets. These funds, if not reclaimed, are redistributed by giving 70 percent back to the departments who claimed the funds, and the remaining 30 percent going to the federal government. This has led to a practice which many are calling policing for profit.
In essence, policing for profit is not about safety or trying to stop the drug war. It is about police departments trying to seize as much cash as they can so they can fill their department’s budget and generate more federal funding. This is an obvious conflict of interest, and yet many states still allow it to happen. The truth is that many departments depend on the money seized to fill their budgets, how this does not raise serious alarms to many state governments is anyone’s guess.
So, what are your options for getting back property taken from you, even if you were never charged with a crime? Even if you are innocent of any wrongdoing the Supreme Court has ruled that the person who wants their property back must prove that they are innocent in a court of law. In short, at least in the case of civil asset forfeiture, you are guilty unless you prove you are innocent. When in court to get your property back you need to prove that (1) that you were not involved in criminal activity and (2) that you either had no knowledge that your property was being used to facilitate the commission of a crime or that you took every reasonable step under the circumstances to terminate such use. Not only is the cost of doing all this rather expensive but when these cases are brought to court the rate people are able to get their property back is well under 50 percent. The police know this and that is why seizing sums of money is so attractive to them. If they can take a few thousand off of someone, they know it will cost the person more money to get back what was taken than the actual amount that was stolen.
While many states have taken steps to contain the excessiveness of the program, it still does not mean the people in those states are safe from the implications the process brings. As long as local law enforcement partners with federal law enforcement, the restrictions placed on them by the state no longer matter as it is now considered to be covered under federal law. The equitable sharing program ensures that local police still find this to be worth their time to do. This is an easy way for police to circumvent state law and continue to line their budgets with citizens money.s
It is programs like these that highlight the problems with allowing federal law to overrule state law for any reason. Most states realize that this program is nothing short of a money grab. It is a shame that officers are going along with it, but as with any bad law if you give an inch they take a mile. The troubling part is that it seems that on a federal level not only are they are not interested in looking into reform, they do not even want to consider reform. In fact, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has commented “he likes the program and has removed Obama era reforms to limit it.” Not only Sessions but our President, Donald Trump, has made similar claims. Letting Americans know that we cannot expect this to end any time soon at the federal level.
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