In 2014, police used forfeiture law to seize more property than burglars stole, and Americans are getting pretty fed up.
Fresh off one of the biggest forfeiture defeats in recent history, the United States’ widespread practice of seizing cash, property and cars without proving any wrongdoing is increasingly under fire.
On Wednesday, Rep. Darrell Issa, a Senior Member of the House Judiciary Committee called for broad reforms to America’s civil asset forfeiture regime, in an op-ed in Los Angeles Times.
Asset forfeiture laws proliferated during the get-tough-on-crime ’80s, and were designed to target the cash, cars, and property of drug kingpins. In reality, they’ve become a way for police to profit off “treasure hunting” among the citizenry, he said.
“Police of course need the ability to seize and protect property as evidence for trial. But the current system — which allows police to go treasure hunting, beefing up their budgets on the backs of innocent Americans — stands in stark contrast to constitutional principles of due process and property rights,” Rep. Issa wrote, in one of the most high-profile critiques of the practice.
More and more states are reforming civil forfeiture, Rep. Issa writes, and the federal government needs to lead. That’s because when states reform their unjust forfeiture laws, local police use a federal loophole called “equitable sharing” to keep taking stuff.
For example, California forfeiture revenue has remained constant for a decade while “revenue under the federal program had more than tripled.”
“Unless Congress takes action, state efforts to stop civil forfeiture abuse mean very little,” Rep. Issa writes.
The Washington Post has found “since Sept. 11, 2001, police took more than $2.5 billion in cash seizures on the nation’s highways without a search warrant or an indictment, let alone a conviction.
For the last reporting year, 2014, cops took more personal property from American citizens ($5 billion) than criminal took in burglaries ($3.5 billion), the Institute for Justice finds.
“Authorities don’t have to actually prove the person was guilty of a crime. They don’t have to even file charges. The presumption of innocence is thrown to the wayside,” Rep. Issa wrote.
Victims have included a Christian rock band that generated $53,000 for charity, before it was seized by cops in a traffic stop in Muskogee, OK. Any large amount of cash is automatically deemed drug proceeds, and is seized without trial.
“Stories such as this one happen all the time,” Rep. Issa writes.
Until last week, Harborside Health Center, Oakland’s largest dispensary, faced closure under threat of federal forfeiture, part of a widespread crackdown that includes ongoing forfeiture cases against Berkeley Patients Group, and hundreds of forfeiture threats to landlords statewide.
“Asset forfeiture is the worst kind of tyranny and especially in cases dealing with medical marijuana,” Rep Dana Rohrabacher told Cannabis Now. “You’re using brute force to steal from people who are providing something that is eliminating the pain from people who are suffering.”
A new bill in the California Senate could reduce policing for profit. Senate Bill 443 needs public outcry to overcome law enforcement’s grip on lawmakers, activists are saying. The bill would stop policing for profit through reducing federal equitable sharing, plus it would require a conviction to take citizens’ stuff, ensure lawyers for homeless suspects, and increase police reporting and accountability.
“SB 443 would require a conviction before property can be forfeited. It would also provide access to public counsel for indigent property owners. Reporting requirements, which have often been evaded by agencies at both the state and federal level, will also be strengthened to provide the legislature with reliable data for continued oversight,” writes the Drug Policy Alliance, in a form letter citizens can send to their representative.
Two hundred protestors this April urged Sacramento lawmakers to pass SB 443, which is pending on the Assembly floor. The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles), the Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Institute for Justice, IndyBay reports.
But conservatives hate forfeiture, too. The right-wing OC Register editorial board supports the idea, stating, “No one should have their property seized by the government without being convicted of a crime. California should follow the lead of New Mexico and pass SB443 to prevent further abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws.”
In April, Florida made added more police accountability to its forfeiture laws, despite opposition from police.
On April 14, a New York Post op-ed from a Cato Institute fellow Ilya Shapiro and Randal Meyer decried back-sliding by the Obama Administration on federal forfeiture reform. Republicans must use the power of the purse to defund the federal Forfeiture Program, researchers opined.
“This move would tie the Justice Department’s hands for the time being while meaningful reform can be considered. … Congress should act. It’s time to reform a tool that has done far more harm to the average citizen, and state freedom, than any benefit to any criminal justice or law enforcement interests — or repeal it altogether.”
Under intense public scrutiny, the Muskogee cops have since returned the Christian rock band’s charity money.
But where actual criminal activity is occurring in Oklahoma “authorities are letting the drugs get to their destinations and be sold and used so that police can grab the money from the drug sales on the return trip.”
The Department of Justice is hiring a new Senior Legal Counsel for their Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section. Who do you think should be the nation’s next top forfeiture attorney? Pay is $123,175 to $185,100.