Since 2001, US police have seized $4.2 billion worth of goods from the public without so much as a trial.
Philadelphia police are being sued after seizing almost 500 homes in the last two years. Photo by Elvert Barnes
Last week, the Washington Post released the results of an excellent—albeit alarming—investigation into the use of asset forfeiture in the United States. What is “asset forfeiture,” in plain English? Essentially: cops stealing your shit with little to no proof of its connection to a crime. With the backing of the Department of Justice, and the excuse of the war on drugs (and now the war on terror), property connected even vaguely to a crime—whether one is ever convicted of said crime or not—can be seized and auctioned off by local police, earning them a tidy profit without the hassle of a trial.
Carrying too much cash in the eyes of law enforcement is reason enough for that cash to be seized. As the Post uncovered, since 2001, $4.2 billion has been taken from members of the public under the Justice Department’s “equitable sharing program.” Not only was there no trial in these cases, there wasn't no search warrant. Only one out of six people whose property was taken bothered to fight, presumably due to the enormous legal fees involved. The state agreed to give back property in 41 percent of the cases where people did challenge the theft. However, it often took months, sometimes years, to get the property back.
The Philadelphia Police Department, in particular, seems to be engaging in asset forfeiture with great relish, so much so that it’s provoked the filing of a class action lawsuit from the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) against District Attorney R. Seth Williams and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
One case of asset forfeiture run amuck in Philly was recently highlighted by CNN: that involving the Sourvelis family. In March, the Philly PD arrested 22-year-old Yianni Sourvelis on charges of selling $40 worth of heroin. He was accused of dealing drugs out of the family home, which served as a great excuse to then take that family home a few weeks later. The city told Chris Sourvelis and his wife Markela to pack their stuff and get out. After a week, the compromise was that Yianni would not be allowed to stay in the house at all, but Chris and Markela could return if they stopped trying to defend the property’s innocence. (Civil asset forfeiture is bizarre: technically the property itself is guilty.) DA Williams is still trying to take the house, though Chris and Markela are allowed to live there while they fight the lawsuit.
Though the nastiness of civil asset forfeiture varies from state to state, the Philly PD is particularly aggressive. They have taken almost 500 homes and almost $6 million in cash in the last two years, while initiating civil asset forfeiture proceedings on 7,000 occasions. According to the IJ complaint, in the past 11 years Philadelphia has seized “over 1,000 residences, 3,200 vehicles, and $44 million in cash.” This has brought the city a total revenue of $64 million, which goes to the police department and the District Attorney. The lawsuit, which alleges violations of due process rights under the 14th Amendment, notes that neither the conflict of interest nor the violation of rights here is subtle. People can lose their home without being provided legal counsel and without their—or their property’s—guilt being established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” All that is required is a preponderance of the evidence and the house or the car or the cash is gone.
Not all states are as bad as Pennsylvania. And not all police departments and DAs are as ruthless as the ones in Philly. But like so many other problems with cops, the local cruelties are federally enabled and subsidized.
Now, onto the rest of this week’s bad cops:
- On the occasion of the NYPD’s body cam pilot program, VICE’s Matt Taylor has written a piece on cops and cameras, so go read that and then feel as pessimistic as he sounds. They’re not panaceas, that’s for sure.
- Over at theWashington Post, police reporter Radley Balko has a piece on how the poor all over Missouri are sucked dry by legal bureaucracy and fines. It’s essential reading.
- Photography is Not a Crime’s Carlos Miller highlights the arrest of an unnamed YouTuber for filming a 4 AM SWAT operation in Gresham, Oregon. The YouTuber is across the street from the house being raided and seems to be standing on his own property as the would-be paramilitary fellas tell him to get back inside. When he disputes them and says “it’s not past curfew” (great dystopian detail, that) they come over, order him inside, and then arrest him, all the while robotically saying he should stop resisting.
- Finger-printing little kids is based in overwrought fears of child abduction, but it’s not, ostensibly, supposed to prepare them for a life of acquiescing to authority figures. And yet, Cory Doctorow was on the nose when he dubbed Ferguson, Missouri, police’s recent attempts to do this in a community beset by police violence as “a new tone-deaf low.”
- On September 2, Ixel Perez, a Houston tenth-grader was tackled by three school resource officers, detained, and then finally suspended from Sam Houston High School. A few seconds of unclear footage of Perez screaming—she says because an officer pressed his knee on her head, and it does look that way—has made the rounds on social media and some of her classmates have protested her suspension. What did the 4’10” young woman do? She says she refused to turn over her cellphone to her teacher, and then later to the assistant principal. The reaction she apparently provoked for that teenage crime would be bad enough without the rest of the story: Perez’s father had texted her, concerned that her mother who is on dialysis had not gotten back to him. Perez says she simply wanted to make sure her mother was OK before she turned the phone over. Perez’s mother is reportedly planning to find her a new school.
- Speaking of Texas schools: On September 5, Houston television station KHOU reported that ten different school police departments received some military-grade weapons, armor, and ammunition thanks to the generous Pentagon and their 1033 program. This is all supposed to prepare them for some kind of active shooting situation, most of which are long over before a tactical team can enter a school. Spring Branch Police Chief C.A. Brawnerbacked out of an on-camera interview to speak about the weapons (after originally promising to answer questions).
- Last week, 42-year-old Timothy Sturgis fatally shot himself during a standoff that came after a narcotics raid on his home in Ashville, Ohio. Sturgis had $25,000 worth of marijuana plants. Said Dave Posten, the special agent in charge: ”No one likes the violence. We wish it didn’t have to be that way. But when people say, ‘Was this little bit of marijuana worth this man’s life?’ it frustrates me. This isn’t ever about marijuana. It’s about someone’s choices.” It’s about your choices, too, Dave. You didn’t cause the guy to commit suicide, your job just forced him to choose between suicide and prison.
- A Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officer resigned from his job on Thursday after a friend turned over to the police department racist text messages the cop had sent. Officer Michael Elsbury had expressed a desire to see other cops “pull a Ferguson” and referred to black people as “monkeys” and “niggers.” Some of the context is confusing, but the racism is clear and totally unacceptable. Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie offered none of the usual excuses, saying only he was “sick to my stomach” over the texts and that this was “an isolated incident.”
- Instead of, say, trying to steal his parents’ house over heroin like the Philly PD, two officers in New Jersey saved the life of an overdosing 25-year-old on Thursday, making them our Good Cops of the Week. Wayne Police Officers Rick Hess and Thomas Antonucci got a report of an unconscious man and upon arrival figured out he was ODing, administered the drug Narcan, and took him to the hospital.
Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Twitter.