Downsize DC has an important campaign going to reform the nation’s blatantly unconstitutional civil asset forfeiture laws, which I urge you to support. The asset forfeiture laws are such an obvious denial of due process that it amazes me that anyone could possibly defend them. And the problem keeps getting worse as law enforcement agencies seek to reduce the impact of budget cuts by stealing more money and property from people without due process.
NPR reported in 2008 that the amount of money seized had tripled in the previous four years:
Justice Department figures show that in the past four years alone, the amount of assets seized by local law enforcement agencies across the nation enrolled in the federal program—the vast majority of it cash—has tripled, from $567 million to $1.6 billion. And that doesn’t include tens of millions more the agencies got from state asset forfeiture programs.
Nor does it include the amount kept by state and local law enforcement, which is probably at least equal to what the federal government takes in. And here’s some crack police work:
It starts with a traffic stop.
“Look at this hose. Look on this side. So that tells me somebody has messed with it. I have fingerprints right here,” says officer Mike Tamez of the Kingsville Police Department, as he inspects the engine of a gray Ford pickup truck that was headed south. He’s looking for clues to where the driver might have hidden drug money.
“Come over and look at [the] air filter housing? Look how clean these are compared to the other parts of the vehicle,” he says. After searching for 20 minutes, Tamez and the other officers crawling over the truck don’t find anything, and they send the motorists on their way.
In other words, all those alleged clues that indicated someone was couriering drug money to Mexico didn’t mean a thing. Gee, you know what else it could mean? It could mean the guy just changed his air filter.
In 2008, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms actually ordered Leatherman tool kits for their agents that had “Always think forfeiture” engraved on them, until an Idaho congressman raised a stink about it and they canceled it. Their email to the congressman said:
“As part of training for ATF special agents and state and local task force officers, ATF purchased a number of Leatherman tool kits engraved with the words ‘ATF – Asset Forfeiture’ and ‘Always Think Forfeiture’ for distribution to the participants. These training aids were designed to increase awareness of the asset forfeiture concept so that persons who do not regularly employ the strategy as part of a criminal investigation might be reminded to consider it. We regret that ATF’s training initiative created a misperception. However, be assured that ATF’s Asset Forfeiture Program complies with Federal law and Department of Justice guidelines. As a result of the concerns brought to ATF’s attention by your constituents, we have halted the distribution of the training aids at issue.”
And the sad thing is that the ATF’s asset forfeiture plan does comply with federal law — unless you count the constitution, of course. No one questions that the government should be allowed to seize cash and property that was used in the commission of a crime or that was purchased with the proceeds of a crime, but not until they’ve actually been convicted of the alleged crime. But that’s not how asset forfeiture works. This is one of the biggest and most obvious areas where the federal courts have failed to enforce constitutional safeguards.