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Asset Forfeiture Getting Worse

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.

Comments

  1. kmhughes says

    Is Downsize DC a good organization? Reading through their About Us page, I am not so sure given their desire to eliminate income tax, etc.

  2. Dennis N says

    Is Downsize DC a good organization?

    It’s libertarian, so take from that what you will. Some good, some bad. A little bit of protect your rights, a little bit of fuck the poor, protect the rich. The usual.

    On Facebook they “like” NullifyNow!, a website/movement dedicated to nullification, because they have apparently have never Googled “Nullification Crisis” or heard of the Civil War.

    Don’t take any of this as a support of asset forfeiture. It’s not. Downsize DC happens to be right about this, but possibly filled with kooks nonetheless.

  3. marymallone says

    Those laws are absolutely insane! So, basically, a police department can say to someone, “I think that your car has been used to commit a crime, so I’m going to take it and not give it back.” Am I oversimplifying it? If not, how…honestly, I’m at a loss for words. Who passed those laws? How absolutely absurd. What an extraordinary abuse of power.

  4. naturalcynic says

    Who passed those laws?
    Asset forfeiture was started with the first RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] Act of 1970 and was used to seize the assets of organized crime organizations. It was expanded to include anyone suspected of any drug crime with the RICO Act of 1978 and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which was used as a model legislation for states to get involved in the fraud.

  5. says

    Asset forfeiture was started with the first RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] Act of 1970 and was used to seize the assets of organized crime organizations. It was expanded to include anyone suspected of any drug crime with the RICO Act of 1978 and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which was used as a model legislation for states to get involved in the fraud.

    I’ve also heard about that being expanded in between the lines to include any house that hosts a rave. Because we all know techno music means the people involved must all be on ecstasy, and therefore police can treat such one-time events like a long-term crack house.

  6. Infophile says

    @4 Marymallone:

    So, basically, a police department can say to someone, “I think that your car has been used to commit a crime, so I’m going to take it and not give it back.” Am I oversimplifying it?

    Pretty much, though you can contest it after the fact. In that case, the burden of proof is on you to prove that the asset wasn’t used in the commission of any crime. Even if you can do so, you likely won’t be refunded for the legal fees it takes to recover your assets.

    How this often plays out in the real world is that police pull someone over for whatever reason (sometimes they specifically look for out-of-state license plates, then get them on speeding 2 mph over the limit). They then search the car – most citizens don’t know that the police don’t actually have the right to do this, so the cops get away with it – and if they find anything of value, they come up with an excuse to “suspect” the driver of violating drug laws. A large amount of cash on its own can be used as evidence of selling drugs, even though there are perfectly legal reasons to have a large amount of cash around (buying a car without a bank draft, going gambling, etc.). They then confiscate the proceeds as possible commissions of a crime, and sometimes, in thanks for the owners cooperation in this matter, they don’t even charge them with this crime.

    All of this is perfectly legal (even the search of your car – the burden is on you to know police don’t have that authority) and perfectly unconstitutional (that pesky “no unwarranted search and seizure” clause). However, it somehow got approved by the courts. Want a good laugh? Here’s their logic: Asset forfeiture laws don’t charge people with crimes, they charge objects with crimes. As $10,000 in cash isn’t a person, it isn’t entitled to fourth amendment protections, so police can seize it without a warrant.

    As twisted as this logic is, the owner of the assets still has constitutional protections, and seizing from them is still a violation of the constitution. At least, it should be, and hopefully precedents on this matter can be overturned.

  7. says

    They roam around in groups, protect each other before all else; they’ll kill you, or just kick your ass and take your shit. Maybe they should have just gotten, “Thug Life” engraved on their tools.

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