Free Markets, Free People

civil asset forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture: Government piracy

A good friend sends along this George Will column:

Russ Caswell, 68, is bewildered: “What country are we in?” He and his wife Pat are ensnared in a Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding in Orwellian language.

This town’s police department is conniving with the federal government to circumvent Massachusetts law – which is less permissive than federal law – in order to seize his livelihood and retirement asset. In the lawsuit titled United States of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts the government is suing an inanimate object, the motel Caswell’s father built in 1955. The U.S. Department of Justice intends to seize it, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give up to 80 percent of that to the Tewksbury Police Department, whose budget is just $5.5 million.

The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. They are being persecuted by two governments eager to profit from what is antiseptically called the “equitable sharing” of the fruits of civil forfeiture, a process of government enrichment that often is indistinguishable from robbery.

Since 1994, about 30 motel customers have been arrested on drug dealing charges. Even if those police figures are accurate – the police have a substantial monetary incentive to exaggerate – these 30 episodes involved less than five one-hundredths of 1 percent of the 125,000 rooms Caswell has rented over those more than 6,700 days.

So we now have the local government and the federal government complicit in using this abysmal rights-violating drug law to take the property of the Caswells without giving them legal recourse to fight the charges.

How.

By charging the property with a crime.

The government says the rooms were used to “facilitate” a crime. It does not say the Caswells knew or even that they were supposed to know what was going on in all their rooms all the time. Civil forfeiture law treats citizens worse than criminals, requiring them to prove their innocence – to prove they did everything possible to prevent those rare crimes from occurring in a few of those rooms. What counts as possible remains vague. The Caswells voluntarily installed security cameras, they photocopy customers’ identifications and record their license plates, and turn the information over to the police, who have never asked the Caswells to do more.

The Caswells are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. IJ explains that civil forfeiture is a proceeding in which property is said to have acted wrongly. This was useful long ago against pirates, who might be out of reach but whose ill-gotten gains could be seized. The Caswells, however, are not pirates.

No the pirates are among those in government and law enforcement who are attempting this travesty.

Constitutional?  You tell me:

They are violating the Eighth Amendment, which has been construed to forbid “excessive fines” that deprive individuals of their livelihoods. And the federal “equitable sharing” program violates the 10th Amendment by vitiating state law, thereby enabling Congress to compel the states to adopt Congress’ policies where states possess a reserved power and primary authority – in the definition and enforcement of the criminal law.

“Equitable sharing” – the consensual splitting of ill-gotten loot by the looters – reeks of the moral hazard that exists in situations in which incentives are for perverse behavior. To see where this leads, read IJ’s scalding report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture” (http://ow.ly/aYME1), a sickening litany of law enforcement agencies padding their budgets and financing boondoggles by, for example, smelling, or imagining to smell, or pretending to smell, marijuana in cars they covet.

This happens more often than you might think, has been going on for decades, is immoral, unconstitutional and just flat wrong.  I really don’t care what you think about the drug war.  Civil asset forfeiture as it is done today is unacceptable  regardless – or should be.  I really don’t give a rip about whether or not it is “legal”.  Many a dictator has made murder legal but it didn’t change the morality of the act, did it?

This must stop.

Now.

[HT: Jake]

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Civil asset forfeiture: a legal scam

As I’ve mentioned before, this is one that burns me up about as much as anything that government/law enforcement does.  Again, I want to make it clear – this nonsense exists because of the drug war.

First an explanation:

Civil asset forfeiture is based on the premise that a piece of property — a car, a pile of cash, a house — can be guilty of a crime. Laws vary from state to state, but generally, law enforcement officials can seize property if they can show any connection between the property and illegal activity. It is then up to the owner of the property to prove in court that he owns it or earned it legitimately. It doesn’t require a property owner to actually be convicted of a crime. In fact, most people who lose property to civil asset forfeiture are never charged.

The laws were created to go after the ill-gotten gains of big-time dealers, but critics say they’ve since become a way for police departments to generate revenue — often by targeting lower-level offenders.

In fact, in the case I’m about to relate, law enforcement has put together as much a “sure thing” as can be imagined.  Read this and be disgusted:

When the Brown County, Wis., Drug Task Force arrested her son Joel last February, Beverly Greer started piecing together his bail.

She used part of her disability payment and her tax return. Joel Greer’s wife also chipped in, as did his brother and two sisters. On Feb. 29, a judge set Greer’s bail at $7,500, and his mother called the Brown County jail to see where and how she could get him out. "The police specifically told us to bring cash," Greer says. "Not a cashier’s check or a credit card. They said cash."

So Greer and her family visited a series of ATMs, and on March 1, she brought the money to the jail, thinking she’d be taking Joel Greer home. But she left without her money, or her son.

Instead jail officials called in the same Drug Task Force that arrested Greer. A drug-sniffing dog inspected the Greers’ cash, and about a half-hour later, Beverly Greer said, a police officer told her the dog had alerted to the presence of narcotics on the bills — and that the police department would be confiscating the bail money.

"I told them the money had just come from the bank," Beverly Greer says. "We had just taken it out. If the money had drugs on it, then they should go seize all the money at the bank, too. I just don’t understand how they could do that."

The Greers had been subjected to civil asset forfeiture, a policy that lets police confiscate money and property even if they can only loosely connect them to drug activity. The cash, or revenue from the property seized, often goes back to the coffers of the police department that confiscated it. It’s a policy critics say is often abused, but experts told The HuffPost that the way the law is applied to bail money in Brown County is exceptionally unfair.

Indeed it was.  Why?  Because the county demanded cash, and, as Snopes tells us, about 80% of the cash in the US has traces of drugs on them (specifically cocaine):

In one 1985 study done by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on the money machines in a U.S. Federal Reserve district bank, random samples of $50 and $100 bills revealed that a third to a half of all currency tested bore traces of cocaine.  Moreover, the machines themselves were often found to test positive, meaning that subsequent batches of cash fed through them would also pick up cocaine residue.  Expert evidence given before a federal appeals court in 1995 showed that three out of four bills randomly examined in the Los Angeles area bore traces of the drug.  In a 1997 study conducted at Argonne National laboratory, nearly four out of five bills in Chicago suburbs were found to bear discernible traces of cocaine.  In another study, more than 135 bills from seven U.S. cities were tested and all but four were contaminated with traces of cocaine.  These bills had been collected from restaurants, stores and banks in cities from Milwaukee to Dallas.

A single bill used to snort cocaine or otherwise mingled with the drug can contaminate an entire cash drawer.  When counting and sorting machines (which fan the bills, and thus the cocaine) are factored in, it’s no wonder that so much of the currency now in circulation wouldn’t pass any purity tests.

Of course, you can bet Brown County law enforcement is completely aware of this little factoid, thus the cash requirement for bail and, for them, the profitable inevitable outcome.

That’s why I call it what it truly is – a scam to cheat people out of their money perpetrated by the very people whose job it is to protect you from scam artists.  You have law enforcement knowingly setting up a situation in which they’re sure they’ll be able to take bail money under this civil asset forfeiture travesty because it will test positive for drugs.

In this case, it didn’t turn out so well for the thieves at the sheriff’s office:

It took four months for Beverly Greer to get her family’s money back, and then only after attorney Andy Williams agreed to take their case. "The family produced the ATM receipts proving that had recently withdrawn the money," Williams says. "Beverly Greer had documentation for her disability check and her tax return. Even then, the police tried to keep their money."

In this case there’s a fairly simple way to stop this sort of blatant thievery.  More options for payment (cashier’s check) other than cash.

However, it is civil asset forfeiture that needs to go the way of the Dodo bird:

In 2010, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian law firm, rated the forfeiture laws in all 50 states, assigning higher grades to states with fairer policies. The firm gave Wisconsin a "C." When there’s less than $2,000 at stake, law enforcement agencies in the state get to keep 70 percent of what they take. If more than $2,000 is taken, departments can keep half.

But in all states, police agencies can contact the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), making the case federal, and under federal law, local police departments can keep up to 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds, with the rest going to the Department of Justice. The institute reports that between 2000 and 2008, police agencies in Wisconsin took in $50 million from this "equitable sharing" program with the federal government.

When provided such an incentive, what is the usual reaction?  As demonstrated by this particular case where they took bail money, it has nothing to do with the pursuit of “big-time dealers” does it?  Instead, they’re just after low hanging fruit, which in this case also happened to be low-income people who had to scrape and borrow just to raise the bail.

That’s “law enforcement”?

That’s scamming the public for profit.  And it is an inexcusable breach of trust between law enforcement and the public. 

If anyone should be in jail, it is those who’ve perpetrated this travesty and those who use it to cheat the public.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO