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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The End of the Bill of Rights? Civil Asset Forefeiture in the US

Burglars and other crooks across the United States manage to seize around $4 billion a year in cash and goods from their victims. That's actually less than the value of the goods and cash seized by law enforcement without the need for a trial or any form of due process. Welcome to the world of "civil asset forfeiture," a pernicious scheme that allows local officials to take your property with no more than an allegation against you, and then they can keep it to line their budgets. It's the very kind of abuse that caused our Founding Fathers to denounce the king of England and his officers. It's the very kind of abuse that the Bill of Rights seeks to banish from the land. But that abuse is back in force, and the Bill of Rights appears to be little more than a distant memory now when it comes to property rights.

Much of this happens at the local level, but the Federal Government also does its share directly. As Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post reported in March 2017, "Since 2007, the report found, the DEA has seized more than $4 billion in cash from people suspected of involvement with the drug trade." Ah, but those are drug dealers, right? Convicted, jailed criminals whose stuff should be taken! That's what we are supposed to think. "But 81 percent of those seizures, totaling $3.2 billion, were conducted administratively, meaning no civil or criminal charges were brought against the owners of the cash and no judicial review of the seizures ever occurred" (emphasis added).

When some officer says your car, cash, home, or whatever was "somehow" involved in a crime and takes it, no charges need to be filed. No trial or judicial review needs to be held. The burden (a prohibitively costly one for many) is on you to prove that the officials are wrong if you want to get it back. This is completely contrary to the principles of due process and the "innocent until proven guilty." If this can happen, and it's happening at a rapidly increasing rate, you have no property rights. The Bill of Rights then is worthless.

In Philadelphia, where I'll be in a few days, a city with a key role in the history of liberty's rise in the United States, a tragic loss of liberty is being experienced by a growing number of people like Chris and Amy Sourovelis. Officers from the Philadelphia Police Department, according to Pennsylvania Watchdog, raided their home "with guns drawn — one of them pointed at the head of the family dog — and found small amounts of the drug in the 22-year old’s bedroom." The parents had known nothing of the son's drug habit, but the police did after his son sold $40 worth of heroin to an undercover cop. The son was busted, of course, and then "a few weeks later, the cops were back to tell the Sourovelis family they had to gather their things and leave the property. The home was being confiscated under civil forfeiture rules, leaving the family homeless and forced to sleep on a neighbor’s couch." That story was reported in 2014, and I see that in a later 2015 story they were able to retain their home and made some progress in their legal battle against Philadelphia. In fact, they were luckier than many who have lost their home, truck, cars, cash, or whatever under similarly scenarios. 

According to Wikipedia's article on civil asset forfeiture, its victims face long legal battles if they want to get their property back, and it's estimated that only 1% of seized property is ever returned.

This nightmare of civil asset forfeiture began with the war on drugs during the Reagan era, where the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 allowed law enforcement agencies for the first time to retain the proceeds of successful civil forfeitures, creating a pernicious profit motive. In many cases, local law enforcement agencies get 80% of what they seize and the Federal government gets 20%. Much easier than raising taxes or getting legislators to raise your department's budget. For a review of the history of civil asset forfeiture and some of the details of its operation, see Jason Snead, "Instead of Raiding the Assets Forfeiture Fund, Congress Should Simply Discontinue It," at Heritage.org.

I believe the reason why most of you probably haven't even heard of this issue, rich in shocking stories, alarming statistics, and genuinely newsworthy drama, is that property rights are anathema to the political views of the highly unified and highly politicized mainstream media. Crying foul about this clearly abusive practice is not going to be a priority for those already bent of encouraging government to take more of your property to "spread the wealth around" for their good and their agenda. But enough such stories have come to the attention of Congress in the past that there was pressure on both sides of the aisle for some kind of reform regarding civil asset forfeiture, and thus under the Obama Administration, Attorney Genera Eric Holder actually imposed some rules that slightly softened the power of states to take your stuff. But in an expression of Trump's pro-police stance, last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismantled those protections and once again ramped up the power of the State over the citizens. See Lucy Steigerwald's article, "Jeff Sessions: Feds Have the Right to Seize Your Cash, Property," July 21, 2017. My apologies to those of you who were hoping that President Trump might turn out to be some kind of small government guy ready to squelch the rise of the police state.

So what to do? Write your congressman and speak out against this abuse. Also work with state leaders to push stronger state policies and laws against this blatant abuse of basic liberties. Quit talking about sports and celebrities and get people talking and thinking about liberty instead.

I have had conversations with a variety of well educated adults on this topic in the past few days. Almost nobody I've met seems to have ever even heard of this. I hope you'll be an exception and be a further exception by speaking out.

7 comments:

daveinlv said...

These forfeitures by law enforcement without any judicial oversight is hideous, and has absolutely NO place under our Constitution. It is bad enough that it goes on constantly all over the country, but now to read that the Attorney General of the US, a man whom I respected and felt was a great choice for AG now has, apparently gone on record as wanting to INCREASE these forfeitures. IF this is true, and not "fake news", I've lost ALL respect for Mr Sessions.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I totally agree with you on this one.

Daveinlv, why in the world would you write "IF this is true, and not 'fake news'"?

Your use of the term fake news here suggests you buy into Donald Trump's idiocy re the news media. (I doubt you're that gullible.) And your use of if tells me you couldn't be bothered to take the 30 seconds needed to check the story out at the U.S. Department of Justice website. It's a bit like saying "IF it's raining outside..." without bothering to take two seconds to look out the window and see for yourself whether it's raining outside.

If you do "look out the window and see for yourself"---if you go straight to the source---you'll find that the story is indeed true, exactly as reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. (In fact, if you get in the habit of being a minimally thoughtful consumer of the news and whenever possible going straight to the source, you might actually find that the so-called "lame-stream media" is much more reliable and less biased than FOX, The American Conservative, etc.)

-- OK

C T said...

How odd that the two media sources Anonymous singles out to diss both covered the issue and not with praise. (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/07/20/humiliation-jeff-sessions.html, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/jeff-sessions-the-new-champion-of-civil-asset-forfeiture/) Do you even know who you're criticizing?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know who I'm criticizing.

-- OK

Mex Davis said...

When I first read about this issue in the news, I could not believe my eyes. Having studied US history, this sounded like we had gone back 250 years in a time machine. My heart sank as I read Mr. Sessions words and I felt a dread come over me. I'm not sure that writing to my Congressman will make a difference since my state, as well as all others, benefit highly from this practice. Hopefully this will make its way to the Supreme Court and better heads will prevail. I'm wondering if these leaders slept through their oath of office ceremonies. And finally, I think this may be only the beginning during this administration. My God have mercy on us.

Anonymous said...

If this is so pernicious and widespread, why has no one heard of it?

There is a lot wrong with the war on drugs. It's amazing that it's a war we could end tomorrow by no longer fighting it. It's also amazing that we could change it from a billions-a-year money pit to a billions-a-year cash cow overnight while at the same time removing power from organized crime. Did we not learn any lessons from Prohibition?

Anonymous said...

I agree it's an issue with serious abuse potential.

But I'm also confident the vast majority of the seizures are connected to serious illegality.

The simple fact is we don't prosecute the vast vast vast majority of crime. I'm sure that's part of the equation here. Confiscate the drug money from the pretty crook/dealer etc as a slap on the wrist and move on. You want more people in prison and more clogged courts? Or do you want us to let the sleazy drug dealer go with his money too?

You can't have the ultimate goal of fast prosecutions without seriously overhauling the judicial system, which is likely to ensnare more innocents if we do that.

Still, we should be very cautious and even set up some oversight on this.

I say this as someone who frequently in my work am legally (as best as I know given myriad of law) in possession of over 10-20k cash pretty frequently.

I know it will make things difficult if ever stopped in a ticket and search situation. But still, I don't think the vast vast majority of seizures are legitimate.