Civil Asset Forfeiture Looks Like A Criminal Enterprise
Posted 06:49 PM ET
Takings: Few Americans are probably aware that law enforcement authorities are free to seize their property even when they’ve done nothing wrong. But it’s a growing racket that needs to be shut down now.
In 2007, Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson were driving through Texas on annual trip to see Henderson’s father. Pulled over by police for driving in the left lane without passing, they were taken to the station and told they fit the drug dealers profile – though no drugs were found on them or in the car, and they were traveling with Boatright’s two young sons.
But they did have a roll of cash to buy a car at their destination. Apparently it caught the eye of police.
At the station, they were given two choices: face charges of money laundering and child endangerment, or sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha in return for the promise no criminal charges would be filed.
They chose to buy their freedom with their savings.
In Tewksbury, Mass., the government has tried to seize a $1 million family property from a couple because their motel was the site of 15 drug arrests in 14 years – none of them involving the couple, who had a history of working with police in drug investigations.
Last year, an elderly West Philadelphia couple had their home seized by the state because their son allegedly sold small amounts of marijuana to an informant from the house’s front porch. It didn’t matter if he was convicted; the state pursued the seize-and-sell process until free legal representation from the University of Pennsylvania Law School got involved.
These are just a few examples of civil asset forfeiture, or “policing for profit.” Under this legal doctrine, a state can take property merely if it is suspected to be involved in criminal behavior. Absurdly, the charges filed are against the property itself – one case was even named U.S. v. $124,700 in U.S . currency – not against a person. No one has to be convicted of a crime .
In recent years, policing for profit – which looks a lot like a criminal enterprise – has raked in the spoils. The Justice Department’s forfeiture fund has gone from $94 million in 1986 to more than $1 billion today. State and local authorities also benefit richly, but it’s hard to know to what extent, as not all report their “profits.” We do know Philadelphia alone takes in about $6 million a year.
To end the abuse, the Institute for Justice this week filed a federal lawsuit against Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Tim Walberg have introduced bills to reform the law. For the sake of the law-abiding in America, we hope they’re successful.