If you’ve never heard of “civil forfeiture laws,” you’re about to get an eye-opening education. What’s more, you’re going to be disappointed that far too many local police departments — maybe even your own — are using these laws to rip off innocent citizens and help fund their own operations.
In a recent lengthy piece for The New Yorker magazine, Sarah Stillman described in detail how these laws have been abused by police agencies all over the country to extort money and valuables from people whose only “crime” was traveling through their jurisdictions:
The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “This Used To Be a Drug Dealer’s Car, Now It’s Ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.
In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.
Adds the American Civil Liberties Union:
Every year, federal and state law enforcement agents seize millions of dollars from civilians during traffic stops, simply by asserting that they believe the money is connected to some illegal activity and without ever pursuing criminal charges. Under federal law and the laws of most states, they are entitled to keep most (and sometimes all) of the money and property they seize.
So much for your constitutional protections
Needless to say, a number of legal experts can see no intrinsic constitutional applications for such laws — and yet, they are used constantly by law enforcement agencies in a manner reminiscent of cops in third-world countries.
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