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.

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Comments on “Asset Forfeiture: Killing Criminal Organizations With $16 Seizures”

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49 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

This public preening is meant to assure everyone that forfeiture kills drug cartels and cripples large criminal organizations.

Actually, much like a legitimate business, all this really does is increase expenses, and ultimately cost of goods sold.

Unlike a legitimate business, drugs users are physically addicted to the product, and the final price has little bearing on how much they’re willing to consume. You could quite rightfully argue that in the end more petty crime and violence will occur as a result.

Anonymous Coward says:

Asset Forfeiture

The new name for an old maxim. In order for us to protect you, we need to take your liberties.

In this case, we need you to give up your 4th and 5th amendment liberties. Law enforcement now reserves the right to search and permanently seize your life or property despite the Constitution clearly proscribing the same.

We have made government so that it may take your life and property with little resistance. Be not surprised when they darken your doorstep or end your existence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Asset Forfeture is Legalized Armed Robbery

That would be taxes. If you don’t pay them, someone with a gun actually shows up.

Asset Forfeiture is unconstitutional and therefor illegal. The fact that you called it legal is the root problem for how we got here. Since you do not recognize the Constitution, they have no reason to either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Armed robbery

What about the terror of being robbed …?

Can’t be too much more terrifying than the robber who told me he was going to shoot me for a six-pack of cheap beer. Ballantine Ale, as a matter of fact.

Otoh, I didn’t get shot in the alley that night, either. That was years ago.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Armed robbery

When life is threatened then the amount of damage the theft causes is irrelevant. The attacker has made it clear that they value $16 over the life of a being.

If a person threatens another person’s life over property, then the initiator forfeits their life. Being kind to a person that cruel and allowing them to continue to exist is being cruel to the kind people that have to endure these types of people.

Life is only sacred for those that respect it!

That One Guy (profile) says:

'Our pay and toys are more important than your rights'

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.

If the department(s) don’t have enough funds to pay for operating expenses then the proper action is to go to the local/state government, present the case as to why the budget needs an increase and the evidence based justifications for that, and get the money that way.

"We’ll just rob the public to make up the difference" is not the proper course of action for a budget shortfall, and demonstrates a horrific mindset(especially who it’s coming from) where the ‘well-being’ of the police are placed well above the public or even the laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

And the people being harmed by asset seizures are also taxpayers, but with the police deciding which groups in society will be harmed by their seizing of assets..

tin-foil-hat says:

It's Scary

It’s scary that so many people have convinced themselves this is OK. They truly believe that there’s nothing unethical about what they’re doing. There have been behavioral studies showing how easily someone can be convinced to do something morally wrong. It may not be genocide but civil forfeiture, planting evidence and other forms of corruption are ethically wrong but what can be done in this situation?

Eldakka (profile) says:

It could be worth challenging

I don’t know what the actual filing fees are, but if you can afford it and they aren’t too large (like $100 or something), then it would be worth it to challenge small seizures (the $1, $16, even a a few hundred) pro se to save on lawyer fees.

The point is to make it cost way more for the police to have seized the money than they are making from the seizure, not to win your money back.

The cost of the DA’s, having to have the police officer or officers in court for a day as witnesses, and so on. Drive up the costs to the police as much as you can, call the police officers supervisors as witnesses over the record of the officer. Even if the judge doesn’t let you call such a witness, that’ll be a motion that probably requires separate hearing to determine decide, which requires the DA’s to be there.

Justme says:

Missing Data...

The number we need to know is how many of the seizures were from people eventually convicted of a crime and how many were law enforcement taking property from people who were never convicted of any crime?

After all it is in a court of law that the determination of guilt is decided by a jury/judge, not by law enforcement. And i believe the bill of rights has a few things to say about seizure of property.

We don’t let cop’s collect the fine when you get a traffic ticket, but if you say the magic word(drugs) then go ahead and empty their wallet.

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