A New Report Shows Just How Much Shit Cops Have Been Seizing
An explosion in civil asset forfeiture has plagued the country since the 1980s, and lawmakers are struggling to rein it in.
Civil asset forfeiture is the policy that allows cops to seize your money and property on the mere suspicion that you've committed a crime. They don't need a conviction to take your shit. In fact, they don't even need to press charges.
As proponents of the scheme will surely tell you, civil asset forfeiture has its merits. In the past, it's been used to pay back millions to victims by seizing assets from big-fish finance dicks like Bernie Madoff. As the Washington Post reports, cops also used civil forfeiture to seize dozens of battered pit bulls from NFL player and dog-fighting enthusiast Michael Vick's property, seeing to it that the rescued pups were then placed into fitting, loving homes. The practice helped take down bootleggers during prohibition, and has long been used against drug kingpins.
But a new report dropped Tuesday by the libertarian nonprofit Institute of Justice describes an explosion in civil asset forfeiture since the 1980s. The feds collected $4.5 billion worth of cash and property via civil asset forfeiture last year, and some $29 billion between 2001 and 2014.
Like lots of awful things in America, this problem took root in the Reagan era. In 1984, Congress created "a financial incentive for law enforcement to forfeit property," according to the report. Previously, seized cash and property were collected in the US Treasury's general fund. But the legislative change meant revenue started getting deposited into a newly created fund controlled by federal law enforcement. "As a result," the report says, "all federal forfeiture revenue can go back to the very agencies charged with enforcing the law, giving them a financial stake in forfeiture efforts."
Not surprisingly, that incentive has proved too tempting for some law enforcement agencies to pass up, and has encouraged abuse and corruption. Even when you're on the receiving end of civil forfeiture and manage to prove your innocence, getting your shit back can be a nightmare. Frequently, people get tied up in a densely tangled and expensive web of court appearances that makes the whole thing feel like a bad trip.
In one case of civil forfeiture highlighted in by the Post in June, a drug task force seized $11,000 of savings from a college student at an airport because his luggage smelled like weed. He was not charged, but cops kept the money anyway. And VICE has previously reported on egregious cases of civil forfeiture, like the one involving a man named Tan Nguyen, who had $50,000 of (what he said were) gambling winnings seized by a Humboldt County, Nevada, sheriff during a traffic stop.
Suffice it to say civil forfeiture has often been used as a battering ram in the war on drugs. And the fear is that departments have become so reliant on the money they make on civil asset forfeiture that they'll be hard-pressed to ever give it up,. That's certainly the case in Texas, where, just this year, 13 bills have been introduced to help clean up the abuse of civil forfeiture in the Lone Star state, but "massive pushback" from local law enforcement has seen to it that none of them made it out of committee alive.
But awareness of civil forfeiture is growing. Investigative reporting by the New Yorker and the Post has helped boost scrutiny of the practice. More recently, HBO's John Oliver spent 16 minutes of his show eviscerating civil forfeiture laws in a segment that's been viewed close to 7 million times on YouTube. And before stepping down as attorney general, Eric Holder called for new limits on civil forfeiture. The hope is that reforms might bring us back to the good ole days when we just had to worry about cops murdering people indiscriminately and without cause.
Follow Brian McManus on Twitter.