Making legalized theft great again

In the recent past, police departments across the country went of a spree, taking advantage of the 1984 ‘civil asset forfeiture’ law that allowed them to confiscate the property of people who were merely suspected of being involved with crime even if they were never actually charged with anything. These people had no means of getting their stuff back even of they were innocent unless they were prepared to hire lawyers for a protracted battle, which many were too poor to do.

The law allowing this was allegedly designed to prevent cripple major drug dealers and organized crime figures from using the proceeds of their crimes. But local jurisdictions quickly realized that this was an easy way to fill their coffers and started confiscating the property of even minor offenders purely on suspicion. Of course, they targeted the poor knowing that these people did not have the means to fight back.

Over the last few years, a wave of negative publicity about this practice that came to be called ‘legalized theft’ resulted in the federal government warning local departments to stop abusing the law and closing a loophole that made doing so easier. But as Alex Emmons writes, the new attorney general Jeff Sessions is bringing back the practice.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department reopened a specific loophole that allows state and local police to sidestep state laws through a practice known as adoptive forfeitures. The loophole allows state and local law enforcement to continue to pillage the property of citizens even in the face of local bans on the practice, as long as they refer the case to federal agencies after they seize property. They get to keep up to 80 percent of what they take, and can use it for their own budgets. The feds take a 20 percent cut of the loot.

The department also released guidelines that purport to limit the use of adoptive forfeitures. They require the Department of Justice to police itself and ensure that “adoptions involve property lawfully seized” — a measure that civil liberties advocates say is woefully inadequate.

“These purported safeguards amount to little more than self-policing, and we all know how well that works,” said Kanya Bennett, a lawyer for the ACLU that focuses on criminal justice issues. “We can’t trust the very law enforcement agencies that stand to profit from a forfeiture to police themselves.”

The guidelines list certain conditions that must be met to allow adoptive forfeitures for cash amounts less than $10,000. One of the conditions is that police are allowed to make adoptive forfeitures as long as it is alongside an arrest, something that Bennett says is deeply problematic, and may incentivize more arrests.

“At least one of these safeguards will promote more entanglement with the criminal justice system because it suggests all cash seizures under $10k are legitimate if they occur incident to arrest.”

So now expect to see a re-emergence of not only asset forfeitures but also arrests for trivial offenses in order to justify this government theft, resulting in more people being thrown into prison with hardened criminals. We know how well that worked out with the ‘war on drugs’ that resulted in overcrowded jails.

As I have said repeatedly, you can be sure that law enforcement and the national security apparatus, unless tightly constrained, will take advantage of every loophole for their own benefit, and ignore the civil rights and liberties of ordinary people. The idea that these agencies will use their discretion wisely and only use the powers given to them under extreme situations is folly given their past history. Take the case of guns and tasers. These are meant to be used only in extreme situations when all other means fail. But as we have become drearily accustomed to on a daily basis, law enforcement now seem to think that they should shoot first before other de-escalation efforts are even tried.


  1. Siobhan says

    As I have said repeatedly, you can be sure that law enforcement and the national security apparatus, unless tightly constrained, will take advantage of every loophole for their own benefit, and ignore the civil rights and liberties of ordinary people.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the 1984 ‘civil asset forfeiture’ law …

    Those of us in the US at the time will recall the tsunami of business-suited pundits solemnly informing us that George Orwell got it all wrong, nothing to see here, folks…

  3. says

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    (casts a spell of summoning cartomancer)
    I wonder how “who profits from these profiteers?” would render in Latin.

  4. says

    Asset forfeiture is such an obvious opportunity for corruption, and is so obviously unconstitutional. I’ve always wondered why so many authoritarians who bleat about the framers and the constitution still support the police state. Often, they also support the ability of the police to hold someone in prison for long periods, without charging them with a crime or bringing them to trial -- just to extort money or a guilty plea from them. Taken together they amount to the same power as the French monarch and nobles had before the revolution there: you could simply order a commoner to be sent to prison, if they annoyed you. Nice power, if you can get it.

    (more precisely: they had to order a magistrate to try them, find them guilty, and send them to prison. so there was some “rule of law”)

  5. cartomancer says

    Ecce! Tu me vocabas, Marce, et hic nunc sum!

    I would probably go with “quis lucretur his lucratoribus” (lit. “who profits by means of these profiteers”).

    The simple Ablative of Instrument used in this construction works quite nicely to dehumanise the relationship -- treating the profiteers as a tool rather than as people with agency (the Ablative of Agent we might expect uses a preposition as well).

    Though whenever anyone invokes the quis custodiet line I feel duty bound to point out that its original context in Juvenal’s sixth Satire is about men you’ve hired to make sure your wife isn’t cheating on you. The joke being you hire these guardsmen to ward off unwanted adulterers and she’ll just have it off with the guards instead,

  6. says

    Upon this morn, the roadway’s neatness soiled
    for there in woeful state the carcass of
    a hunting hound was laid, its lights drawn forth
    by carriage passage cruel, tale told by
    a wheel’s trace writ in blood. This borough fears
    my step, reviles anon my comp’ny, for
    ’tis I who has its truest visage seen.
    Its coachways are in truth but poison’d troughs,
    these troughs replete with sickened borough’s blood;
    the ditches shall in time coagulate
    and in the flowing gore shall vermin drown.
    The rot and filth, the refuse born of sin
    of fornication vile and murder foul,
    shall burble forth above their darksome loins
    and then the whores, the kings, the sinners all
    shall turn their yellow mien to heaven high
    and in their terror shriek “Have mercy, lord,
    and set us free!”, and I shall whisper… “Nay.”
    Rötschreck, Act II, William Shakespeare’s ‘Ipsos Custodes’

  7. says

    Ecce! Tu me vocabas, Marce, et hic nunc sum!

    Behold, you call me, Marcus, and here I am!!!
    (I think I got that right; I haven’t attempted latin without Google translate since 1974, but “Ecce” I know from “ecce homo” and I know ‘sum’)

    “quis lucretur his lucratoribus”

    I am so gonna use that somewhere.

  8. cartomancer says

    Very close indeed. “vocabas” is imperfect tense, not present (“you were calling me”), and you missed “nunc”, which is just “now”. The sense is fine though.

    Oh yes, and fuck Jeff Sessions. Just in case it be thought that Latin pedantry is my only concern.

  9. RationalismRules says


    Oh yes, and fuck Jeff Sessions

    Fair enough, but it’s interesting to consider why Trump appears to be doing exactly that, right at this particular moment in time.

    Rachel Maddow suggests that Sessions resignation would allow Trump to make a recess appointment of AG, which would be the quickest way to put a ‘friendly’ into a position to bring the Mueller investigation under control, which is probably a very high priority for him now that Mueller is apparently looking into his personal finances.

    I no longer assume that Trumps’ tweets/comments are purely due to his rampant narcissism. I still think many of them are, but I suspect his team is learning how to weaponize this particular personality quirk to their advantage.

    (I’ve just discovered Maddow. She tends to hyperbole a little too much for my taste (although not by cable news standards), but she does seem rather good at connecting the dots.)

  10. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    As with many others, the legal practice of civil asset forfeiture completely mystifies me. It’s the most absurd legal reasoning that I’ve ever heard, and I am included fantasy legal discussions at D&D tables. First, the government starts a legal action against the piece of property, not the owner of the property. That’s right, the actual litigant is “one car, make and model XX, V.I.N. XX”. I don’t even. It’s like suing a rock. It makes no sense to me. It’s absolutely and completely absurd. Courts are meant to be places to resolve actual disputes between real people (or their abstractions and representatives, i.e. corporations). How the fuck can you sue a rock? How is that a court case? Just how? What? I don’t even.

    Then there’s the problem that it’s a civil action, and not a criminal action. Civil asset forfeiture is obscene, and should be banned. Any asset forfeiture should be by criminal charge and conviction only (with possible preemptive seizing in case of flight risk, with a legal standard like setting bail). Even considering a hypothetical civil forfeiture where the owner was the named litigant (as opposed to the car), even civil asset forfeiture should have never made it past a basic sniff test in the courts. It’s clear unconstitutional as per the bill of rights. Civil asset forfeiture alone amazes me. Then, when you add in that the named litigant is a fucking car, and it’s like I’m in The Twilight Zone, or The Truman Show.

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