Reprinted from Reader Supported News
California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law last week that would prohibit the police from seizing property -- and money -- from individuals without due process. Politicians, bloggers, and others on both the left and the right called the move "historic" and "one of the most important reforms for civil forfeiture in years." Even The New York Times, in its October 2 print edition, called it a rare example of the left and right uniting to "rein in government abuse of civil forfeiture."
The previous California law required a criminal conviction for forfeitures under $25,000. But local police in the state circumvented that by using a much weaker federal law to seize assets. As The New York Times reported, "California police would file state charges against a target, but then outsource the forfeiture to the federal government." The problem there is that the feds don't need any criminal conviction whatsoever to seize anybody's assets. Indeed, federal law enforcement can take any property for themselves if they "suspect it is being used for a crime."
The entire civil forfeiture system, state and federal, is ripe for abuse. And, as you might expect, is it abused all the time.
- Tan Nguyen won $50,000 in a Las Vegas casino in 2013. That same night, he was stopped for driving three miles over the speed limit. When the cop saw the $50,000, he confiscated it. Nguyen sued. It took a few years, but he finally got his money back.
- A New Jersey man was stopped for a minor traffic violation in Monterey, Tennessee. When the cop found $22,000 in the car, he seized it. The driver proved to the cop that he had active bids on eBay and that he was on his way to purchase a car that he had successfully bid on. The cop submitted his report, but never mentioned anything about eBay or a car purchase. The driver did not get his money back.
- Alda Gentile was stopped by police while traveling through Georgia on a house-hunting trip to Florida. The police searched her car for drugs and contraband, but found none. What they did find was $11,530 in cash that Gentile intended to use to buy a house. They seized it. She told a local news outlet, "I didn't know it was illegal to carry cash. They made me feel like a criminal."
And that is the heart of the issue. It isn't illegal to carry cash. Civil forfeiture laws are nothing more than legalized, government-sponsored robbery.
Civil forfeiture laws were conceived and passed in the 1980s and 1990s to be used as a tool against drug smugglers. The idea was that local law enforcement also could use the seized assets to further battle illegal activity. The cops would use the smugglers' own assets against them.
But free money does funny things to people. According to The Washington Post, 2014 federal asset seizures totaled $5 billion. That same year, Americans lost $3.5 billion in burglaries and robberies. And that's just federal law enforcement. Many states don't report statistics, but the 14 that do reported seizing another $250 million in 2013.
The fix is in on this legalized government robbery. But it's not too late to turn things around. If the courts aren't going to declare civil forfeiture without conviction illegal, the state legislatures -- and Congress -- must. California had the courage to do something about it. It's time for the other states to stand up.
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