from the finder's-fee:-one-(1)-sofa dept
The joke about asset forfeiture is that it’s actually not a joke. Advisors to law enforcement have actually said it’s a great way for cops to go shopping for things they want. It’s not just cash being taken, although it’s primarily that. It’s vehicles, too. And when that just doesn’t seem to be enough, it’s houses. And everything in them.
So, the “going shopping” joke is one very dark punchline. Here’s another one: “take everything that isn’t nailed down.” Except that this actually happens. And it includes things that are nailed down. Reason’s C.J. Ciaramella has more details.
In 2012, Rehfeldt says the Hind County Sheriff’s Office raided his client’s apartment on suspicion her boyfriend was a drug dealer. Anything purchased with drug proceeds is fair game to be seized by police under civil asset forfeiture laws, and they determined the boyfriend had furnished the apartment, so off went her TV, her table and chairs, her couch, her lamps, and even the pictures on the wall.
“Her case is the first in my 38 years of practicing law where they took the furniture,” Rehfeldt says.
What’s the proper response? Shock that this sort of thing actually happens? Or relief that law enforcement doesn’t clean out a person’s home every time they have a hunch something may have been purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity?
In this case, most of what was taken by the sheriff’s office was eventually returned. Rehfeldt’s clients is one of the lucky ones, able to navigate a legal pathway that’s a greased downhill slope for law enforcement, but an expensive, uphill battle for those whose property has been seized.
His client got everything back. Well, not everything.
“It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that one Visio television, one dining room table and chairs, pictures and lamps are to be returned to the plaintiff upon execution of this Order by this Court,” the Feb. 10, 2015 order in the Hinds County Court reads. “Additionally, one white couch is hereby forfeited to the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office.”
For reasons unexplained, the sheriff’s office was allowed to keep the couch. Perhaps deputies had grown attached to it after it was placed in the breakroom. Or maybe it was “disposed” prior to the forfeiture being finalized and there was simply no way to retrieve it. Or maybe it was just the state’s skim — the percentage taken off the top of every forfeiture, whether or not the seizure was legally-justified.
The skim is part of the problem. Mississippi’s legislature is looking at overhauling the state’s forfeiture laws and a Senate committee letter obtained by Reason confirms that law enforcement’s tendency to charge fees or withhold some percentage of the property seized gives the program the appearance of impropriety.
Upon a cursory analysis of these orders, PEER staff notes that Agreed Orders tend to have the most potential for indicating possible abuse. This is because most Agreed Orders are entered into upon a settlement agreement in which the arresting authority receives some or all of the forfeited property as a condition subsequent to some sort of agreement made between the arresting party and the defendant.
As the arresting party often seizes a large amount of property or cash and many of these Agreed Orders stipulate that some or most of the said property or cash will be returned while some will be forfeited, a reasonable person might assume that the arresting party is using its authority to gain assets from an arrest by settling with the defendant.
If this is how it’s routinely handled, it encourages law enforcement to take everything it can get its hands on, if for no other reason than it increase its chances of being able to retain some of it if the forfeiture is challenged. This settlement system perverts incentives, changing it from serving the general public through the targeted crippling of criminal organizations (however loosely-defined) to serving law enforcement agencies by allowing them to directly profit from the taking of citizens’ property.