American Civil Forfeiture Laws Require Drastic Reforms

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November 1st, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Under US law knowns as “civil forfeiture,” governments claim they can take property suspected to be involved in a crime without arrest, prosecution, or conviction of the owner of the property. They don’t even have to prove any crime was committed. All they have to do is state the property is suspected to have been used in a crime or to have been acquired as a result of a crime. Nobody has to be convicted for the owner to lose the property to the government. The government can then liquidate it and keep the proceeds unless their victim is wealthy enough to be able to fight them in court at significant expense.

How are the proceeds from government theft (civil forfeiture) used? There are few if any restrictions. The use is typically at the discretion of whomever runs the agency receiving the proceeds of the government-backed theft. The funds can be used to pay a police chief’s salary, or to buy private gym memberships for law enforcement officers, or to throw a Christmas party for the cops involved in the theft.

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Motel Customers Can Cost Motel Owners Their Properties

The Caswell family of Lowell, Massachusetts, is about to lose its motel to the Federal government because criminals who rented motel rooms sold drugs or committed crimes on the premises.

The Institute of Justice, which is helping the Caswells fight the government action, points out that only about 0.05% of their 125,000 room rentals over the past two decades resulted in arrests of customers committing crimes. That works out to around 3 or 4 arrests per year.

Despite this, the government plans to take the motel valued at over $1 million. If they succeed, it will be a windfall for them because the motel is free and clear without a mortgage. They then plan to split up the proceeds between the US Federal Government and local law enforcement.

POLICING FOR PROFIT: Feds try to take innocent elderly couple’s Mom-and-Pop motel

This same abusiveness is often applied by the government against many others, not just owners of motels. A more common example is that you loan your car to a friend who then uses it to do something like transporting yet another person who was carrying drugs or stolen property. Even though your car was used to commit a crime without your knowledge or approval and your friend may not have even known what was happening either, you will likely lose your car to the government without any reimbursement.

Police Dogs Help Cops Steal

The cops don’t even have to file a case against you to do steal your property. They don’t even have to arrest anybody for a crime. All they have to do is claims there is a suspicions of a crime involving your property. All they need to do is to get a police dog to act suspicious around your property and they can then take your property.

For instance, an Indiana man mentioned in the video below had $17,000 in cash taken because a police dog “smelled something”, supposedly indicating to the police that the money was drug money.

If you are a law-abiding citizen and have some cash on hand for buying something like a used car from a private seller, what are the odds that none of those bills has ever been around any drugs? CNN reports that 90% of US currency contains trace quantities of cocaine. So if you have a stack of ten mixed bills totaling $200, there is less than a one in a million chance that your money will not have any cocaine on it.

And what if the dog was just mistaken? After all, heroin has an odor with components similar to vinegar and old aspirin and cocaine has an odor similar to snapdragon and petunia flowers. If you like to grow flowers, you may be an ideal target for police theft of your property by using a police dog to imply you are involved in drug crimes. If your kid has lice and you shampoo for it, that might get you fingered for trading ecstasy. Contrary to police deceptions, dogs are not portable reliable mass spectrometers that run on alternative fuels such as Purina Dog Chow and Kibbles ‘n Bits.

Quoted from Question for Justices: Do Aldo and Franky’s Noses Always Know?:

Justice David H. Souter, in a dissent from the 2005 decision, cited a study showing “that dogs in artificial testing situations return false positives anywhere from 12.5 to 60 percent of the time.”

“The infallible dog,” he wrote, “is a creature of legal fiction.”

Nobody was arrested, charged, prosecuted, or convicted of any crime involving that money. But the government kept the $17,000 by claiming it “suspected” it was drug money despite the man having a story that he was on his way to use the money to buy a car for his aunt.

If a Police Dog “Alerts,” Should You Lose Your Cash, Car and Other Property?

Out Of State Drivers Lucrative Victims For Cops

As this investigative report below shows, states like Tennessee are widely preying upon drivers with out-of-state plates to seize money they find in the cars by claiming it is “drug money”.

Civil Forfeiture Highway Shakedowns in Tennessee

The investigation also shows that cops are mostly focused on capturing money from drug sales, not on intercepting the drugs themselves. The drugs themselves are next to worthless to the cops compared to the money they can make fleecing down out-of-state drivers who happen to be carrying cash.

Little Recourse

Cops functions as licensed thieves who seize property and cash without a trial and split up the proceeds between the “law enforcement” agencies involved. Unless you can afford to hire an attorney and spend potentially years of litigation to recover your property, you are out of luck and you will almost certainly not get your property back from the thieves with badges.

Most people who are targeted with such civil forfeitures do not even have a realistic opportunity to oppose the government’s actions. There is no provision for appointing a public defender or proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the party was somehow responsible. They just take the property and keep it, knowing that most of their victims cannot fight the government and win because they do not have the mountains of cash and numerous lawyers the government has. Because the courts interpret their laws to mean that your property can be assumed to be guilty of involvement in a crime and it is up to you to prove otherwise, any victim of such theft has a big battle on their hands to get their property back.

Even when you can prove that you got your property or money legally and did not commit a crime, the government will fight for years to keep it.

Quoted from The Looting of America:

Police stopped 49-year-old Ethel Hylton at Houston’s Hobby Airport and told her she was under arrest because a drug dog had scratched at her luggage. Agents searched her bags and strip-searched her, but they found no drugs. They did find $39,110 in cash, money she had received from an insurance settlement and her life savings; accumulated through over 20 years of work as a hotel housekeeper and hospital janitor. Ethel Hylton completely documented where she got the money and was never charged with a crime. But the police kept her money anyway. Nearly four years later, she is still trying to get her money back.

Civil forfeiture is big business for the government. The US Department of Justice’s civil forfeiture account, containing money to be paid out to local law enforcement agencies, reportedly has grown from $500 million in 2003 to $1.8 billion in 2011. Many states are getting tens of millions in payouts each year from the Feds. That’s just the money the Feds are involved in stealing. Many state and local governments have their own civil forfeiture rackets not tracked in those figures, so nobody knows the true size of this racket. It could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars of government theft of property per year.

A good start to cleaning up this mess would be to require that the government bear the burden of the proof. They should be required to prove at least to standards of clear and compelling evidence that any property to be forfeited was used in a crime with the knowledge of the owner or was acquired with money that was earned by criminal activity that resulted in a criminal conviction of a crime commensurate with the value of the seized property. For example, they should not be able to seize a $30,000 car because of a misdemeanor crime such as a child shoplifting a candy bar and then using her parent’s vehicle as a “getaway car.” Without such a shift in the burden of proof to the government, it is trivially easy for the state to concoct a reason to seize any property it wants with no realistic recourse for its victims.

Further Reading

Six Legal Ways for Cops to Abuse You

United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass. (The Motel Caswell): Federal & Local Law Enforcement Agencies Try to Take Family Motel from Innocent Owners

Upcoming Dog-Sniffing Cases Raise Serious Civil Forfeiture Concerns

Policing for Profit – The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Question for Justices: Do Aldo and Franky’s Noses Always Know?

The Looting of America

  1. Rwolf
    November 2nd, 2012 at 13:23 | #1

    Are Police Asset Forfeiture Squads Out of Control?

    Like a spreading plague, media reports of Police using Civil Asset Forfeiture to seize property from innocent owners is frightening off buyers of motels, bars, restaurants; residential rental property. Investors and property owners increasingly believe they are sitting ducks for police to confiscate their property. Many investors have noted the publicized civil forfeiture of Motel Caswell by Federal & Local Law Enforcement Agencies from the Caswell family that owned and operated the motel for two generations. The Caswells cooperated with police to abate infrequent drug problems at their motel caused by guests. The family Motel was free and clear and perhaps provided a police target for asset forfeiture. See: “United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass.”

    Bars, restaurant and rental property owners Increasingly fear police; strongly believe that police can make it a point—to shut down or seize any bar, restaurant, motel or residential rental property by arresting a customer or tenant unbeknownst to the owner—possessing or distributing drugs; or undercover police / informants can steer drug sales or buys onto private property to forfeit it. Some owners of bars, restaurants and rental property become police informants, report on their customers—in the erroneous belief police won’t target their business or property. There are more than 350 laws and violations that can subject property to government asset forfeiture.

    Government civil asset forfeiture requires only a civil preponderance of evidence for police to forfeit property, little more than hearsay. No one need be charged with a crime. Corrupt Police can create the hearsay. If police civil forfeiture abuse is not brought under control it is foreseeable many Americans will be afraid to own real and personal property that comes in contact with the public.

    It is understandable that more business and rental property owners fear police. Almost every week, national news reports police, including high-ranking police and sheriffs being arrested for selling drugs, robbing, extorting or protecting drug dealers, planting evidence; filing false reports to send innocent persons to prison.

    Next: Police Drones—Recording Conversations In Your Home & Business To Forfeit Property?
    Police are salivating at the prospect of having drones to spy on lawful citizens. Congress approved 30,000 drones in U.S. Skies. That amounts to 600 drones for every state.
    It is problematic local police will want to use drones to record without warrants, personal conversations inside Americans’ homes and businesses.

    Despite some U.S. cities and counties banning or restricting police using drones to invade citizens’ privacy, local police have a strong financial incentive to call in Federal Drones, (Civil Asset Forfeiture Sharing) that can result from drone surveillance). Should (no-warrant drone surveillance evidence) be allowed in courts—circumventing the Fourth Amendment, for example (drones’ recording conversations in private homes and businesses) expect federal and local police civil asset property forfeitures to escalate. Civil asset forfeiture requires only a preponderance of civil evidence for federal government to forfeit property, little more than hearsay: any conversation picked up by a drone inside a home or business, police can take out of context to initiate arrests; or civil asset forfeiture to confiscate a home/business and other assets. Local police now circumvent state laws that require someone be convicted before police can civilly forfeit their property—by turning their investigation over to a Federal Government Agency that can rebate to the referring local police department 80% of assets forfeited. Federal Government is not required to charge anyone with a crime to forfeit property. There are more than 350 laws and violations that can subject property to government asset forfeiture that have nothing to do with illegal drugs.

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