The Corner

Inside Police Seminars on How to Maximize Profits from Civil Forfeiture

The New York Times has a piece today about the seminars offered to police officers to increase their effectiveness at growing their states’ and police departments’ coffers through civil asset forfeiture. As the Times explains, civil asset forfeiture, which expanded during the War on Drugs in the 1980s, “allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime.”

While it is hard to put an exact number on how much state and local governments have seized in the process, it’s a lot, and it’s growing fast — from an estimated $407 million in 2001 to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year.

Here are some of the things you would learn at these seminars:

The seminars offered police officers some useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals. Don’t bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers (“everybody’s got one already”), the experts counseled. Do go after flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.

In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called them “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ” …

You also get to learn how to seize things from “innocent owners”:

In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets. The Times reviewed three sessions, one in Santa Fe, N.M., that took place in September, one in New Jersey that was undated, and one in Georgia in September that was not videotaped.

Officials offered advice on dealing with skeptical judges, mocked Hispanics whose cars were seized, and made comments that, the Institute for Justice said, gave weight to the argument that civil forfeiture encourages decisions based on the value of the assets to be seized rather than public safety. In the Georgia session, the prosecutor leading the talk boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture in Georgia, where seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car.

So that all sounds bad, but if civil asset forfeiture helps catch criminals, is it really such a big problem? Well, here’s the problem: It’s not actually clear the laws are effective crime-fighting tools, and there’s plenty of evidence that these laws do not only fall on criminals. The practice has come under fire as a growing number of stories made it clear that many innocent bystanders are caught in the net of civil asset forfeiture and the war on drugs.

For instance, the Times notes that “prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owners, which means that sometimes a parent or grand-parent loses their cars.” Second, as the Institute For Justice explained back in 2010, “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head.  With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.” The level of evidence required to seize someone’s property is so low and the reward for departments is so high that the incentives encourage the abuse of many innocent Americans and the corruption of our police forces.

And you don’t get your stuff back just because you’ve been found innocent, as a recent Heritage Foundation Fact Sheet explains:

Being innocent does not mean that a state has to return your property. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the “innocent owner” defense is not constitutionally required. Furthermore, even in states where you do have an innocent owner defense, the burden is typically on you. Your property is presumed to be guilty until you prove that you are innocent and that your property therefore should not be forfeited. In other words, you must prove (1) that you were not involved in criminal activity and (2) that you either had no knowledge that your property was being used to facilitate the commission of a crime or that you took every reasonable step under the circumstances to terminate such use. And all the while, the police retain your property. To cap it all off, the success rate for winning back property is low. Pragmatic property owners, however innocent, may reason that it is best to cut their losses rather than challenge the forfeiture in court.

The Times article is here, and here is an important paper from the Institute for Justice called “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture and other IJ resources on the issues, 

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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