Asset Forfeiture Is Just Cops Going Shopping For Stuff They Want

from the only-thing-more-violated-than-citizens-is-the-ideal-itself dept

The New York Times has obtained some rather enlightening footage from law enforcement asset forfeiture seminars. In it, various speakers — including police officers and attorneys — present this extremely popular law enforcement program as a great way for agencies to get the things they want. Without a trace of self-awareness or remorse, speakers indulge the perverted incentives that have seen this swell from $407 million (in 2001) to $4.3 billion in 2012.

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.’”

Too bad the cops couldn’t wait. No Mercedes for them. The city attorney notes, not without remorse, that if they hadn’t jumped the gun and had waited until the intoxicated man had actually entered his vehicle, the police could have scored a brand new Mercedes for nothing more than a drunk driving violation.

Other officials involved in law enforcement asset seizures were even more blunt. According to the head of the forfeiture unit in Mercer County, New Jersey (Sean McMurtry), assets seized are closely tied to law enforcement agency “wish lists.”

Mr. McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said…

Mr. McMurtry said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,” Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. “If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.”

Prosecutors at this seminar noted that seizures are rarely challenged. Further adding to the imbalance are “first hearings,” which are presided over by prosecutors whose offices often directly benefit from asset seizures, rather than by more impartial judges.

Adding to this farcical display of “justice” is the fact that many law enforcement agencies have expanded the reach of these programs. What used to be limited to fraud or drug cases — with the intent being to reimburse the defrauded and cripple the finances of powerful drug dealers — is now just another form of punishment, one that allows law enforcement agencies to stock up on flat screen TVs and vehicles.

[M]cMurtry… said forfeiture contributes to only a small percentage of local budgets but it is a good deterrent and works especially well against repeat offenders, such as domestic violence perpetrators who repeatedly violate a restraining order.

As noted earlier, agencies are also seizing the vehicles of drunk drivers, even for first offenses. A police officer attending this seminar notes that the vehicle seized often doesn’t belong to the drunk driver, but another family member, like a parent or spouse. But the officer (and the department he represents) doesn’t care. The vehicle is as guilty as the suspect, even if the vehicle doesn’t belong to the suspect. This allows the PD to punish an innocent party for the wrongdoing of another (and, of course, take advantage of the seized asset).

Officials may argue that seizures are a good deterrent, but that was never the program’s intention. It was about providing retribution to members of the public (in fraud cases) and weaken large-scale criminal enterprises (like drug syndicates and organized crime). Now, law enforcement agencies are using it to punish drunk drivers and restraining order violators. Vehicles and cash have been seized in cases related to prostitution, shoplifting — even statutory rape.

Law enforcement agencies have found a steady stream of income and they love it. Officers aren’t just taking advantage of an easily-abused system. They’re actively engaged in telling others how to get the most out of asset forfeiture. The New York Times reviewed footage of three law enforcement seminars and saw all of the following:

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[…]

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.

The Dept. of Justice is actively involved in this exploitative use of asset forfeiture laws. According to documents obtained by Muckrock, the DOJ provides a way for agencies to skirt restrictive state laws and directly profit from asset seizures.

Unless their state specifically prohibits it, agencies enrolled in the equitable sharing program can petition a DOJ agency to “adopt” their seizure.

In an adoptive seizure, if the local agency has seized the property without any help from the feds, they get to keep 80 percent of the profits while the DOJ takes the rest.

Proceeds from joint seizures, in which DOJ agencies cooperate with their local counterparts in the investigation, are split based on how much effort each agency contributed.

Even if local governments attempt to head off the inevitable result of these perverted incentives (like Missouri does by diverting asset forfeiture proceeds to its education fund), the federal government is there to kick that door wide open — yet another way the government of and by the people directly contributes to the abuse of the very same public it’s supposed to be protecting.

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Comments on “Asset Forfeiture Is Just Cops Going Shopping For Stuff They Want”

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Violynne (profile) says:

“Government” and “protection” are mutually exclusive. Generally, when one is needed, the other is considered unwelcome.

Examples include:
“The TSA needs to inspect you for your protection.”

“The NSA needs to swallow all your data for your protection.”

“We need these red camera lights for your protection.”

One thing most Americans can agree with: We don’t need government to protect us.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually some degree of protection is needed and this forfeiture mechanism was justified back when it was implemented due to the fact that the drug lords used intermediaries to keep their records clean and protect their empires. Everybody knew what was happening but there never was enough evidence to trace things back to the top of the chain and deliver proper justice. That 4th Amendment bypass is now being thoroughly abused as it should have been expected. Same will happen if golden keys are implemented in our encryption and other services to help mass surveillance. If it can be abused by those in power it is not a matter of asking IF it will happen but rather WHEN.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Any 4th amendment bypass is illegal. All members of law enforcement using it are showing their true colors.

Name me a single person in power that actually respects the Constitution?

When a Nation is concerned… there is always someone wearing handcuffs… you can either put them on the citizenry with BS laws, or you can put them where they belong… on the members of government to keep their power from getting out of check as it has now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I asked for someone who respects it, you obviously don’t get it either.

If you do note respect it 100%, then you don’t respect any of it. Otherwise you are nothing more than a take what you like and shit on the rest.

Here in the south we call those types fair weather friends… in her case… likes the constitution as long as it goes with her plans.

Again… name a me a single one! There are some political people I sort of like, but I still do not seem the respecting the Constitution… I assure you I will be shocked if you can find one!

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The United States government was never intended to be 100% about the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution itself was originally designed without the Bill of Rights…many of the founding fathers were strongly against including them (for a well-founded fear that if we made a list of specific rights then people would assume anything not listed was NOT a right, and then the government would take it away…sound familiar?).

It was also designed to be a living document, one which updated as the U.S. grew and the culture and situation changed. It was not designed as a “holy book” of rigid rules that were never modified or interpreted. It was also designed to create a framework for the government, then let that government operate within that framework.

In many ways the Bill of Rights tainted that idea by making ammendments to the Constitution mostly about rights. Note that I am not arguing against the Bill of Rights…it had a lot of benefits, the main one being a clear, difficult-to-breach restriction on government power. But the Constitution was never some inviolable “10 Commandments” of government that it’s citizens were expected to follow blindly because the founding fathers knew best.

You seem to have some pretty strong feelings for something that doesn’t actually fit with the history and writing of the Constitution itself.

justme says:

Re: Re: Re:4 JP Jones - Re:

It’s absolutely a framework, a framework that the government is suppose to work within 100% of the time. They should never be working outside that framework, they should seek to amend it if needed.

But they can’t do that without our support, and since they seem to believe that the very act of informing citizen’s, pose’s an unacceptable risk to our national security, it will never happen.

Honestly the only thing that informing your citizen’s poses a risk to, is there ability to violate the constitution while claiming legal authorization.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

‘back on track’ by having complete obeisance to our zionist puppetmasters in tel aviv ? ? ?

when the chips are down, she will fold, count on it…

(as an aside, kampers might be -as i was – astounded to learn of the substantial number of slimepigs in washingtoon who have dual citizenship with israel… VERY weird, and i don’t know, seems kind of legally skeevy to have dual citizenship and yet serve as an elected representative of one of the countries…)

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

If it can be abused by those in power it is not a matter of asking IF it will happen but rather WHEN.

Not really. The question is rather when the abuse will become public. Then there will be a public debate and about 40% of the previously 100% illegal abuse will be declared legal because terrists, children pornographers whatever.

Cur forward 10 years, repeat. Note that the net consequence of illegal shit becoming public will be making more of it legal in the long run. That sounds strange. But all the unbelievable stuff Nixon had to resign over is stuff that the Obama administration, legally, does routinely.

These days, there would be nothing one could impeach a Richard Nixon over. Well, possibly sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks by promising North Vietnam a better deal if they refused to talk with the incumbent president, thus contributing to letting him lose against Nixon in the presidential race. Fitting that sort of treason while not-yet-president into the current political landscape might still prove tricky. But it’s not what the impeachment threat he resigned over was about.

But once Nixon was president, everything he did would be just fine with the current administration. Because of national security and terrorists. He was just ahead of his time.

Anonymous Coward says:

and the USA is supposed to be such a wonderful country! seems to me it should never have any financial worries. all it’s got to do is literally steal as much as it wants from ordinary citizens! what an absolutely disgraceful way to behave! and to have seminars on what to get, how to get it and how to distribute amongst the officers and offices concerned, is despicable!!

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

… all it’s got to do is literally steal as much as it wants from ordinary citizens!

Only a few hundred years ago, the colonists went to war against Britain and one of the reasons was the Brits would just take over any house, building, or property to house its soldiers, at the owner’s expense.

Short memory you guys have. Or, once you get empire and tyranny into your head, you start to look like just any other empire or tyrannical regime. Power corrupts, …

Andyroo says:


All this means is that those that have just a little of anything the cops want, they will take it and the judges in the cases will support the cops in almost every single situation even bending the law to allow them to get something they really want from someone, If I was an American I would be absolutely ashamed of my country, but damn they have been brainwashed to repeat ad nauseam “America the greatest Nation on earth”

David says:

Re: Easy countermeasure for asset forfeiture - own nothing of value

o defeat asset forfeiture, be poor, drive a barely functioning car no one wants to look at or touch, live in the bad part of town, and own nothing worth stealing. Then it won’t matter how easy it is for the cops to rob you – they won’t want to!

Good idea. I started by having a government nobody could possibly want.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

The other wrong

In addition to the obvious fact that cops shouldn’t be stealing stuff, there’s the other problem of cops using it as a form of punishment.

Cops should never ever ever ever engage in punishment. This is just as bad, if not worse, than the theft. This is what lets cops think that being abusive is OK. There is a reason that we (used to) separate the job of the cops (investigate crimes and apprehend suspects) and the job of the courts (mete out punishment).

When that separation goes away, a huge chunk of public safety and freedom goes with it.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The other wrong

There’s all kinds of heroes like that. Take Gibbs, from NCIS: I’d trust him with any information I own, because he’ll always use it only at need and never to punish those who don’t do wrong.

In real life, such heroes don’t exist, and that’s why we have to treat real life different from the fiction.

Binko Barnes (profile) says:

Literally nothing that I know of better illustrates how thoroughly corrupt our government at all levels has become.

No moral individual could possibly consider this to be acceptable. Government empowered goons seizing people’s property at will is almost the perfect definition of tyranny.

Asset Forfeiture seems to be most abused in the red states like Texas and Georgia. Where are the legislators who are always crowing about property rights and ownership? Where are the courts that allow people to be robbed of their possessions with no due process or conviction required?

Anonymous Coward says:

Perhaps we’re looking at this wrong. Maybe this “asset-forfeiture” is their way of promoting a reduction in today’s consumerism with the hopes of “freeing us” from those material possessions that presumably enslave us.

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.”

Something to think about when you’ve been “shopped” by your respective law enforcement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Let’s see. Asset forfeiture earned law enforcement 4.3 billion dollars in 2012. Federal, state and local LE employs about 1.9 million people so…asset forfeiture/# of LEOs = 2263.15789474

Since “good” cops aren’t stopping the “bad” cops from doing this, every single police officer you see, every single person working in a police station, is stealing $2,263 (and change)from their neighbors.

But I wouldn’t go up to any of them and say that, of course. I don’t want to become a statistic.

Anonymous Coward says:

The main question is, when will the abuse of asset forfeiture ever end? People were complaining about it 20 years ago, and things only got worse. People complained about it 10 years ago, and it continued to get worse. How bad does it need to get before things turn around?

Maybe in another 10 or 20 years, people can expect to lose their cars for the ‘crime’ of letting the parking meter expire. When meter-maids won’t be writing tickets, they’ll be driving tow trucks.

Anonymous Coward says:

So when do they start forfeitung cars which are “criminally parked”?
Towing companies try to rob you blind, but at least you can get your car back for several handfulls of cash.

Nothing beats the good old days of feudalism, where every local knight or lord could rob you unless the peasantry gets too uppity.
There are those in power over others and those they took them from.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Of course if you try to fight the NYPD then you end up having ‘an accident’ (or your house mysteriously burns to the ground) or you get assaulted on your way to the hearing….

Or the accused shows up with an Uzi/Mac 10 and everybody dies, counsel for the defense, prosecutor, and judge, since accused’s been left with no other viable options.

This is not what we want from civilization.

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