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Police Can Take Your Stuff for No Reason — And the Practice Is on the Rise

A new report details the rise of civil asset forfeiture, a process that allows cops to confiscate private property without charging anyone with a crime.

by Olivia Becker
Nov 11 2015, 10:20pm

Photo via Flickr

In addition to a lot of other things police have the power to do, they can take your cash, cars, and other personal property even if you've never been charged or convicted of a crime  — a practice that has been on the rise in recent years.

This controversial practice is known as civil asset forfeiture. Not only does it allow cops to take your stuff pretty much when they feel like it, the revenue from what they take goes toward those very local law enforcement agencies seizing it. Over the past decade, this practice has gone up nearly sixfold, according to a report released Tuesday by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a legal non-profit that focuses on civil liberties protection.

Related: A New Report Shows Just How Much Shit Cops Have Been Seizing

Between 2001 and 2014, the funds from federal forfeitures in the Departments of Justice and Treasury surged 1,000 percent, to a total of $29 billion, according to the IJ report. This happens at both the state and federal level. The federal government and 25 states direct 100 percent of the funds seized in forfeitures to local law enforcement, usually the very ones that carried out the forfeiture. Forty-three states in the US direct almost half of the value seized in forfeitures to funding local law enforcement agencies. Other recipients of the seized funds include education and the federal government.

Forfeiture has been around since the 1700s, when the US did not have an established income tax system, and the government largely relied on the mechanism to fund itself, said David Smith, an attorney and leading expert on asset forfeitures. But it wasn't until the passage of a 1984 law, and subsequent state measures that followed, that allowed the proceeds of forfeitures to go back into law enforcement. Ever since then, "the overall trend is definitely upward," said Smith.

Asset forfeiture began to be used as a weapon in the war on drugs, allowing authorities to crack down on drug dealers by seizing their cash and property obtained illegally. This "'takes the profit out of crime,'" the FBI says, "by helping to eliminate the ability of the offender to command resources necessary to continue illegal activities."

But in recent years, instances of forfeiture abuse by law enforcement have been well documented by media and watchdog organizations. In Long Island, two brothers who owned a small business had $446,000 seized by the federal government in 2012 without any charges being brought against them. The same year in West Philadelphia, an elderly couple had their home seized after a SWAT raid because their son had carried out three $20 marijuana deals on the front porch. In 2013, police in Tarrant County, Texas — encompassing Fort Worth — seized a total of $7.2 million in cash, cars, computers, and other personal property, according to an investigation by the Texas Star Tribune.

Once someone's property has been seized, "owners must navigate a confusing, complex, and often expensive legal process to try to win it back," according to the IJ report. This often involves a complicated fight to prove that you have, in fact, obtained your property legally. But cases fighting forfeiture are rare, since hiring a lawyer to fight the case often costs far more than whatever was seized. 

'We don't do that in this country, we don't punish people until we've proven that they're guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'

As budgets for local governments are slashed, law enforcement departments often search elsewhere for funding, and forfeiture can supply revenue. For example, Smith pointed toward small municipalities around Los Angeles, such as Pomona and Beverly Hills, that "have dramatically increased their forfeiture efforts to make up for tightened law enforcement budgets."

Related: How Drug Trafficking Conspiracy Laws Put Regular People in Prison for Life

Unlike criminal forfeiture, which only allows the government to take someone's stuff after they have been convicted, civil forfeiture does not require law enforcement to convict or even charge someone with a crime before seizing their property.

"Law enforcement's argument is that this is the way to punish criminals," said Lisa Knepper, a co-author of the IJ report. This would be fine, Knepper added, if we proved that they were criminals already, which is not the case in civil forfeitures. "We don't do that in this country, we don't punish people until we've proven that they're guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Watch Is the War on Drugs Working? - The People Speak:

Public reporting on the practice is essentially nonexistent. Only 11 states make information on forfeiture cases publicly available and many do not even collect data on it at all, which means the details of where, how, and when it's used are difficult to come by. But groups like IJ have detected trends on forfeiture based on the information that is made public, Knepper says. For instance, the average amount of cash seized in forfeiture cases is low, usually less than $500.

Smith says forfeiture is especially common in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where it is often accompanied by practices like New York City's controversial stop-and-frisk.

When police stop people they've deemed suspicious, "they just take their money and get away with it, because who's stopping them?" said Smith. "Certainly not the police chiefs, who are glad to have the money."

Related: How Mississippi Slashed Its Prison Population and Embraced Criminal Justice Reform

Once someone's property has been seized, "owners must navigate a confusing, complex and often expensive legal process to try to win it back," according to the IJ report. But cases fighting forfeiture are rare, since hiring a lawyer to fight the case often costs far more than the initial amount seized. 

There have been some efforts to limit forfeiture abuse, including reform attempts in Missouri and New Mexico, but they have done little to reign in the practice. In 2000, Congress passed a law that sought to make it easier for people to fight civil asset forfeiture cases but it did not bar law enforcement departments from profiting off the amounts seized, which Smith and Knepper both pointed to as the crux of the problem.

Smith says that if the profit incentive aspect of asset forfeitures was removed, it could be a useful tool for law enforcement. But, he added, the likelihood of that happening, considering the weight of the political power of the district attorney and law enforcement in many of these municipalities, is slim. 

Photo via Flickr