Asset Forfeiture: Killing Criminal Organizations With $16 Seizures
from the imperceptible-wounds dept
When asset forfeiture is pitched to Americans, law enforcement agencies roll up to press conferences with shiny, new seized vehicles and large stacks of cash. This public preening is meant to assure everyone that forfeiture kills drug cartels and cripples large criminal organizations. But the day-to-day reality is much different. Pathetic, even. Here’s Eric Boehm of Reason on Utah’s yearly forfeiture roundup:
Utah police seized more than $1.4 million in cash during 2016 and federal law enforcement agencies operating in Utah took another $1.3 million in assets from people suspected of crimes, a new report shows.
Sounds impressive until you start digging into how that $2.7 million was amassed. It wasn’t a few large seizures with definite ties to criminal activity. It was a bunch of petty, nickel-and-dime seizures where the amounts taken could easily have earned by the property’s owners through completely legal means.
Most forfeitures (69 percent) take place during traffic stops and most of the time only money is seized. According to the state report, cash was taken in 99 percent of forfeitures during 2016, with the median seizure amounting to only $1,031.
The paperwork alone for the following seizure easily surpassed the value of the property seized. And that’s just in terms of office supplies. Add on the labor involved and what is even the point.
That means, in many cases, the amount seized was considerably less than four-figures. In one instance, the report shows, police took $16 from a motorist.
So much for the “don’t drive around with large amounts of cash” solution. To avoid being robbed by opportunistic law enforcement, the mantra needs to be shortened to “don’t drive.” Or simplified to “don’t leave the house.”
Utah’s smallball seizures aren’t an aberration. Before the Washington DC Metropolitan PD was hit with minor forfeiture reforms, it also believed no amount of cash was too small to be seized. It racked up nearly $3 million in seizures slowly and steadily from citizens who went on to sue the department.
Altogether, the nearly 1,400 claimants in the class action lost almost $700,000 to forfeiture, so the settlement will restore roughly three-quarters of what was taken from them. Yet the claimants represent just 14 percent of those affected by this particular D.C. forfeiture policy. Over a six-year period, the Metropolitan Police Department seized a staggering $2.9 million from these owners collectively.
Among the owners represented in the lawsuit, the median amount of cash seized was a mere $120. In fact, the MPD seized as little as $1 from some owners. There is little indication trivial amounts of money can be plausibly tied to the drug trade, noted Sean Day, who was co-counsel on the class action.
These low dollar amounts discourage owners from seeking the return of their property. In some places, the fee just to file a motion for return is higher than the amount taken. Even the median seizure in Utah (~$1,000) is easily dwarfed by filing fees and the costs of legal representation. It would be ludicrous to believe officers aren’t aware of these facts when they seize cash.
It’s hard to see how civil asset forfeiture benefits society. It doesn’t take criminals off the street because criminal charges are rarely filed. It doesn’t put criminal cartels out of business because the few hundred dollars lifted off random people likely isn’t directly tied to these organizations — and if it is, the hit is so small an organization won’t feel it.
Law enforcement agencies fight reform by claiming it will harm taxpayers if the agencies are forced to rely solely on general funds (something with actual oversight) to pay officer overtime and purchase equipment. But the alternative is even worse: agencies and officials are arguing it’s OK to tax certain citizens the amount of cash they happen to have on them when interacting with police officers. It’s a preposterous argument that says law enforcement agencies not only shouldn’t be expected to play by the same public funding rules as every other agency, but will actually be unable to perform their basic functions without a second stream of income.