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The Long Struggle to Reform the System That Lets Cops Casually Seize Property and Cash

Politicians in both parties have been trying to overhaul the process by which police confiscate the cash and belongings they think have some vague connection to crime. Then Donald Trump happened.

A little after 7:30 in the morning on January 28, 2016, 28 automatic-weapon-carrying SWAT team members approached a warehouse in a popular business district in San Diego. They knocked down the doors and pointed guns at two workers inside, commanding that they lie facedown on the ground, before proceeding to turn the place inside out. The police officers, part of the San Diego joint narcotics task force—an amalgamation of local cops from various agencies plus some supporting personnel from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—found what they were looking for: $324,979 from a safe inside. A helicopter hovered overhead as they made their score.

The business was called Med-West Distribution, a medical marijuana dispensary operating in the open and, according to its owner, paying taxes in compliance with California medical marijuana laws, if not the letter of federal ones. Police, of course, claimed that the company was producing hash oil illegally. But the company maintains cops weren't going after the business for any type of wrongdoing—and that instead they just wanted to seize cash through the labyrinthine and punitive legal process known as "civil forfeiture."

"When they broke open the safe, you could see on the security camera the officers high-fiving each other with glee," James Slatic, the owner of Med-West, told me. In addition to the cash, the officers found Slatic's tax return, which they later used to freeze his bank account and his wife's, as well as that of his two daughters, one of whom was in the middle of a semester at college. Within a few hours, the entire family had effectively been rendered penniless.

Worst of all: No one was even charged with a crime.

Watch our documentary about civil asset forfeiture in America.

The Slatics' story has become all too typical in America, where cops, district attorney's offices, and the feds all use civil forfeiture to transfer massive amounts of cash and property from Americans who are never even charged with a crime to help fund law enforcement. And one of the chief boosters of the practice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who has vigorously fought against the bipartisan coalition that wants to finally put an end to civil forfeiture—recently become the top law enforcement officer in the country. President Trump has also signaled his support for the practice, albeit in an off-the-cuff remark where it was not quite clear he understood what he was being asked about. Still, he threatened to "destroy" the career of a Texas state legislator who was proposing statewide civil forfeiture reform.

Even with Trump's apparent support, civil forfeiture has proven odious to prominent members of both major political parties. Particularly upsetting to civil liberties advocates is that those trying to get their money back don't get provided with a lawyer—this being a civil, not a criminal case—and the cost of an attorney usually outweighs the amount of money seized anyway. But we still don't know whether an almost comically pro-cop White House will serve to unleash police and prosecutors when it comes to seizing suspects' belongings. Trump has already signaled that he'll be increasing funding for law enforcement, an infusion of cash that would either discourage police departments from resorting to forfeiture or one that could simply embolden them to pursue even more.

The use of civil forfeiture first exploded beginning in the mid 1980s, when President Reagan's Comprehensive Crime Control Act allowed police departments to "eat what they kill" when it came to seizing cash. In 1986, police departments participating in the Department of Justice's Federal Asset Forfeiture Fund took in just $93.7 million dollars. By 2014, that number had risen to $4.5 billion dollars. Over 88 percent of cases were being closed out administratively, meaning that people hadn't even tried to get their money or property back.

Alarmed by both the civil rights being denied, as well as the property rights being trampled on, lawmakers at every level have increasingly stepped up to take on the problem. Over the past five years, at least ten states have reformed the laws by which police departments seize cash. But most of the laws are so recent, it's unclear whether they've had an impact yet. On the federal side of things, change has been slower—in 2015, then attorney general Eric Holder worked to limit some of the more outlandish uses of the Justice Department's forfeiture program. Still, in many states, civil forfeiture remains a way of life. And in some states like New Mexico, where substantive reforms have already been passed into law, police departments are still seizing cash, leaving citizens stuck in endless legal battles.

Even with the stiff resistance from law enforcement, some advocates like Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, an organization that has led multiple lawsuits on behalf of victims of civil forfeiture—and is working with the Slatic family—are skeptical reform will be significantly impeded by the new administration.

"We're hopeful that the opposition that would come from the Justice Department would spur on Congress to take legislative action," Sheth told me.

Indeed, House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte, a prominent critic of the practice, has said he intends to pursue comprehensive criminal justice reform this session, and Ted Cruz used his appearance at CPAC this year to commit to civil forfeiture reform in particular. And since Trump's election, even conservative states like Arizona have considered major new reforms limiting forfeiture; the State House voted 60–0 to advance a bill setting a higher evidentiary bar for pursuing forfeiture just last month.

"It's the state lawmakers that are really answering that call to protect both property rights and due process rights of our citizenry," Sheth said.

When we spoke, Slatic and his lawyer were set to file another motion in his ongoing case. He has yet to recover any of the money that was taken from his business or any of the money seized or frozen in the accounts of his family. All he can do is hold out hope that even as the broader cause of criminal justice reform runs into something of a wall with President Trump, the principle of innocent until proven guilty is reaffirmed in American life.

"We're just demoralized," Slatic says, sounding exhausted while listing the obstacles still ahead in the fight to get his money back. "This is the dirty little secret of our entire justice system, and people are finally figuring that out."

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