Governments making money by seizing assets


The abuse of the civil asset forfeiture laws where police and local agencies seize the assets of people on the slightest of pretexts without having to get a court order or even charge someone with a crime let alone convict them, has reached such epidemic proportions that mainstream news organizations have started running stories on it, rightly focusing on the fact that this is being used as a source of revenue rather than for fighting crime. Law enforcement agencies have essentially become like organized crime syndicates in a shakedown racket.

The Washington Post ran a big story that says that using (surprise!) the events of 9/11 as a pretext, laws that were designed for big-time drug criminals are being used to harass and steal from ordinary people.

After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the government called on police to become the eyes and ears of homeland security on America’s highways.

Local officers, county deputies and state troopers were encouraged to act more aggressively in searching for suspicious people, drugs and other contraband. The departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions on police training.

The effort succeeded, but it had an impact that has been largely hidden from public view: the spread of an aggressive brand of policing that has spurred the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes, a Washington Post investigation found. Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back.

Behind the rise in seizures is a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms that teach the techniques of “highway interdiction” to departments across the country.

A thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing “trophy shots” of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities.

“All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym. Hain is a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, a leading interdiction training firm based in Guthrie, Okla., whose founders also created Black Asphalt.

This has proved pretty lucrative. The report says that “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.”

The article describes one stop of a motorist John Anderson who was stopped by David Frye for “failing to signal promptly when changing lanes”.

He told Anderson he was finished with the stop. But Frye later noted in court papers that he found several indicators of possible suspicious activity: an air freshener, a radar detector and inconsistencies in the driver’s description of his travels.

The officer then asked whether the driver had any cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or large amounts of cash and sought permission to search the BMW, according to a video of the stop. Anderson denied having drugs or large amounts of cash in his car. He declined to give permission for a search. Frye then radioed for a drug-sniffing dog, and the driver had to wait another 36 minutes for the dog to arrive.

“I’m just going to, basically, have you wait here,” Frye told Anderson.

The dog arrived and the handler said it indicated the presence of drugs. But when they searched the car, none was found. They did find money: $25,180.

Frye handcuffed Anderson and told him he was placing him under arrest.

“In Nebraska, drug currency is illegal,” Frye said. “Let me tell you something, I’ve seized millions out here. When I say that, I mean millions. . . . This is what I do.”

Frye suggested to Anderson that he might not have been aware of the money in his vehicle and began pressing him to sign a waiver relinquishing the cash, mentioning it at least five times over the next hour, the video shows.

“You’re going to be given an opportunity to disclaim the currency,” Frye told Anderson. “To sign a form that says, ‘That is not my money. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t want to know anything about it. I don’t want to come back to court.’ ”

Frye said that unless the driver agreed to give up the money, a prosecutor would “want to charge” him with a crime, “so that means you’ll go to jail.”

An hour and six minutes into the stop, Frye read Anderson his Miranda rights.

The article goes on to describe case after case of this kind of abuse. But you don’t have to be on the road for this to happen. Nor do you have to be the suspect. It is enough to be the relative of a suspect. CNN had a report described what happened to the Sourovelis family in Philadelphia

The nightmare began when police showed up at the house and arrested their 22-year-old son, Yianni, on drug charges — $40 worth of heroin. Authorities say he was selling drugs out of the home. The Sourvelises say they had no knowledge of any involvement their son might have had with drugs.

A month-and-a-half later police came back — this time to seize their house, forcing the Sourvelises and their children out on the street that day. Authorities came with the electric company in tow to turn off the power and even began locking the doors with screws, the Sourvelises say.

At a time when state and federal agencies are having their budgets cut, it looks like they have discovered a new source of revenue to run their agencies.

Philadelphia officials seized more than 1,000 houses, about 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash, totaling $64 million in civil forfeitures over a 10-year period, according to the lawsuit.

The very authorities taking the property appear to be profiting from it, according to Pennsylvania state records. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office says about $7 million went straight to the salaries for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and the police department in just three years. In that same time period, records show the D.A.’s office spent no money on community-based drug and crime-fighting programs, according to the Philadelphia AG’s office.

An article in the Canadian public broadcasting system CBC warned Canadians not to carry too much money with them when they travel here because the US police are running a racket with these seizures

There’s a shakedown going on in the U.S., and the perps are in uniform.

Across America, law enforcement officers — from federal agents to state troopers right down to sheriffs in one-street backwaters — are operating a vast, co-ordinated scheme to grab as much of the public’s cash as they can; “hand over fist,” to use the words of one police trainer.

Civil rights advocates have documented all sorts of outright legal theft:

  • The (minority) businessman from Georgia who was relieved of $75,000 he’d raised from relatives to buy a restaurant in Louisiana.
  • The (minority) church leaders who were carrying nearly $30,000 from their Baltimore parishioners to carry out church activities in North Carolina and El Salvador.
  • the young college grad with no criminal record on his way to a job interview out West who was relieved of $2,500 lent to him by his dad for the trip.

As the Canadian government notes, there is no law against carrying it here or any legal limit on how much you can carry. But if you’re on an American roadway with a full wallet, in the eyes of thousands of cash-hungry cops you’re a rolling ATM.

Apparently only in North Carolina can a person’s assets be forfeited only if they are actually convicted of a crime. Everywhere else, we are all at the mercy of the police and the prosecutors who see travelers, especially out of state ones who they think are unlikely to sue them, as cash cows to fill their coffers.

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    So, how is this not just armed robbery? And the cops are bragging about this and having contests to see who can seize more?

    The cops, a bunch of pea-brained thugs who joined the force in order to kick people who can’t fight back.

  2. nichrome says

    61,998 cash seizures over 13 years works out to about 130 per DAY.

    America really does have a lawlessness problem. Unfortunately it’s in law enforcement.

  3. kraut says

    “The cops, a bunch of pea-brained thugs who joined the force in order to kick people who can’t fight back.”

    The experience in Nazi Germany and later the GDR.
    Giving power to incompetent losers to police everybody else leads to abuses and keeps the populace subdued. Works for authoritarian regimes every time. Considering that: is the US already an authoritarian state or on its way to it?

  4. corwyn says

    …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.

    — 5th Amendment U.S. Constitution.

  5. kraut says

    @ corwyn

    in the aftermath of 9/11 (a convenient marker point) very little of the constitutional rights were left untouched.
    One might as well do as US soldiers did with the Quran – throw it into the toilet and flush – or more useful: use as an arsewipe.

  6. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Ed has been writing about this issue for a long time, and it does seem to be getting worse.

  7. lorn says

    I love how the police get blamed when the police didn’t write the law, don’t prosecute it, and don’t set their own priorities. If beaten with an axe handle you don’t blame the lumberjack who cut the tree. Police are charged with carrying out law as interpreted by the AG, police chief, political leaders. Change their interpretation and instruction for how to enforce it and police methods will change over night. Change the law on seizure and you will force a reinterpretation and change enforcement.

    I really doubt 9/11, or resulting changes in the law, had much to do with it. A friend from high school in Virginia had his charger confiscated in Florida when they found two keys of grass and and a couple of ounces of cocaine under the back seat. It was pressed into use as a highway patrol interceptor. He was afraid he was going to do serious time in jail and was surprised when they said he could go if he agreed to leave the drugs and car behind. They were kind enough to allow him to retrieve the leather jacket handed down from his father. That must have been around 1978, the war on drugs was heating up in Florida as drugs moved up the east coast from around Miami.

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