Today we are going to look into one of the shadiest and most terrifying realities of law enforcement. It’s the process of what is known as civil asset forfeiture. It’s been around for a long time and is widely unpopular with the general public. We are going to explore what exactly civil forfeiture is, how it can affect you, how some police departments handle forfeiture funds, and why these laws need to be abolished or reformed as soon as possible.
What Is Civil Forfeiture?
Civil asset forfeiture is a procedure where the state or federal government can seize someone’s property without convicting or even charging them with a crime. It turns out civil forfeiture is actually surprisingly common. Just about every county in the United States has laws that allow for forfeiture to take place. It is different from eminent domain, which allows the federal government to condemn the land of private citizens, usually for building projects. Instead, forfeiture laws are where police officers can confiscate your belongings if they have any “preponderance of the evidence” that you are, have, or will potentially use them to commit a crime. Officers routinely seize large amounts of cash, vehicles, and even homes. They do not need a warrant and it hasn’t exactly done many favors for the already rapidly diminishing public trust in the police. The whole process is essentially legalized robbery by law enforcement.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
If you do ever have your belongings confiscated unjustifiably, you can challenge it in court to try and get them back. However, that can be extremely difficult for most people. One reason for that is because many victims of civil forfeiture cannot afford to hire an attorney to challenge the case. And even if you do manage to hire a lawyer, it can still be tricky because you are not the one on trial, it’s your stuff. It’s the reason why these types of cases have historically had some fascinating names such as:
United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
United States v. Eight Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty Dollars ($8,850) in United States Currency
United States v. A 2004 Chevrolet Silverado
Because it’s your property that is on trial, it has less protection and rights under the law than you do. If you were the one who was charged with a crime, you are innocent until proven guilty. Conversely, under current forfeiture laws, your assets are deemed guilty until you prove them innocent.
Here is just one example: Back in 2014, a 22-year-old named Yianni Sourovelis was arrested on drug charges and claimed he was selling drugs out of his parent’s home. When he was arrested, prosecutors came ready with a lawsuit against the house itself, thus condemning their property. This all happened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where the Department of Justice found that the city seized over 3,000 vehicles, 1,000 houses, and $44 million in cash over a 10 year span.
Yianni’s parents, like many others who have had their property taken away, took the initiative to attempt to retrieve it. The place to do that is at courtroom 478 City Hall. The Sourovelis family anticipated bringing their case in front of a judge, but instead they were face-to-face with a prosecutor from the district attorney’s office, meaning that there was no judge or jury to hear their case but rather the person who did, is the same person who had taken their home to begin with. It’s an uphill battle that is nearly impossible to climb, with or without an attorney. In fact, many court cases end up costing more than the value of the possessions that were taken. It’s why so many people just walk away and take the loss rather than fight it in court.
Police Departments and Forfeiture Funds
In many cases, there has been huge ethics dilemmas involving police departments and how they manage forfeiture funds because that cash they seize from citizens has to go somewhere. The problem is that in most states, police departments are allowed to keep most or all of the money that they seize. Knowing that, you have to wonder why officers commonly ask how much money drivers have in their vehicles during traffic stops.
Police departments make a LOT of money from forfeiture funds. The money that the police got from forfeiture seizures actually topped money recovered from burglars in 2015 so one might think that there are some strict limitations on how they can spend it, but that’s just simply not the case. Back in 2012 at a Columbia, Missouri citizens police review board hearing, police chief Ken Burton was almost astonishingly honest on how his department decides forfeiture funds are spent:
“There’s some limitations (on how forfeiture funds are spent), actually there’s not really on the forfeiture stuff…we normally base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget…we try not to use it for things we need to depend on.”
-Columbia, MO police chief Ken Burton
Now there is clearly a major ethics problem there. Police departments spending funds on luxury items rather than on task forces or equipment is a serious problem. But Burton’s department is not alone when it comes to mismanagement of this extra money. One district attorney’s office in Massachusetts used forfeiture funds to purchase their department a Zamboni, even though auditors said, “we could not determine where this machine was located or the law enforcement purpose it serves.” And in Montgomery County, Texas, one department was the center of public outcry when it was discovered that they purchased kegs of beer, bottles of Crown Royal, and margarita machines with forfeiture funds.
In other states like Indiana, there is a provision in their state constitution that requires not some, but ALL forfeiture funds be transferred to the state’s common school fund. According to records from the Indiana Treasurer’s Office, Indiana’s 92 counties paid only $95,509.72 in civil forfeiture funds to the common school fund from 2008-2010. That adds up to just slightly over $1,000 per county, which is suspiciously low.
The reason for that low number is quite simply due to the fact that 91 out of 92 counties in the state aren’t adhering to the law. The only county in the whole state who is continually making payments into the common school fund is Wayne County, which made 18 payments totalling nearly $39,000 over the same two-year period. Others like Howard, Marion, Hamilton, and Lake County have not paid a dime into the common school fund.
Getting Rid Of Civil Forfeiture Laws
There are currently many lawsuits across the country that are going after the mismanagement of forfeiture funds. There has also been legislation introduced that would either abolish or strongly reform forfeiture laws. With that being said, it is important that we realize that this whole system is an injustice to the American public and arguably a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In all fairness, civil forfeiture has had a few positive consequences. It has helped cripple some drug-trafficking organizations and has returned over $1.5 billion to victims. However, it is evident that officers many times don’t need good reasoning to confiscate your property, it is nearly impossible to retrieve that property in court, and any funds that are taken from citizens by the police are spent irresponsibly far too often on everything from Zamboni’s to margarita machines. It is time to take a good, long look at forfeiture and call for systemic change.
Andrew Kurzeja is a senior writer and contributor for the Asterisk Effect. Questions and comments can be submitted to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org