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Asset seizures: an industry of legalized stealing - FastTadpole - 03-31-201010:08 PM
Quote:Asset seizures: an industry of legalized stealing
Mar. 31 2010 - 6:38 am
It may surprise many Americans to know that it has become routine for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, or convicted of, a crime. Though the US legal mantra has traditionally been innocent until proven guilty, asset forfeitures turn that concept on its head, leaving the accused guilty until they have proven themselves innocent.
Radley Balko details the scam in a recent article, which should be read in its entirety. One of the most shocking details in Balko’s article is how, in some cases, police have seized assets preemptively — for crimes that have not yet been committed – as part of a warped kind of Minority Report stratagem.
One of the examples Balko provides concerns a man named Anthony Smelley, who had $17,500 seized by the police when he was pulled over in Putnam County, Indiana for making an unsafe lane change. Smelley was carrying around the cash because he’d just received a settlement from a car accident, and Smelley claims he was on his way to purchase a car for his aunt.
A record check indicated that Smelley had previously been arrested (though not charged) for drug possession as a teenager, so the officer called in a K-9 unit to sniff the car for drugs. According to the police report, the dog gave two indications that narcotics might be present. So Smelley and his passengers were detained and the police seized Smelley’s $17,500 cash under Indiana’s asset forfeiture law.
But a subsequent hand search of the car turned up nothing except an empty glass pipe containing no drug residue in the purse of Smelley’s girlfriend. Lacking any other evidence, police never charged anybody in the car with a drug-related crime. Yet not only did Putnam County continue to hold onto Smelley’s money, but the authorities initiated legal proceedings to confiscate it permanently.
There were no drugs — not even residue in Smelley’s girlfriend’s pipe, but that doesn’t matter, according to attorney Christopher Gambill, who represented Putnam County. Here is a transaction between Gambill and an incredulous judge.
“You have not alleged that this person was dealing in drugs, right?” Judge Headley said.
“No,” Gambill responded. “We alleged this money was being transported for the purpose of being used to be involved in a drug transaction.”
Incredibly, Gambill was arguing that the county could seize Smelley’s money for a crime that hadn’t yet been committed.
Call me a Constitutionalist harpy, but I thought law enforcement have to provide more than their best hunch in order to seize the private assets of citizens.
Things get nuttier. Asset forfeitures (a somewhat euphemistic term that should more accurately be called “asset seizures”) are being used to supplement dwindling law enforcement budgets, and the number of seizures (and amount in cash seized) exploded recently.
National Public Radio has reported that between 2003 and 2007, the amount of money seized by local law enforcement agencies enrolled in the federal forfeiture program tripled from $567 million to $1.6 billion.
Almost half of surveyed police departments with more than 100 law enforcement personnel said forfeiture proceeds were “necessary as a budget supplement” for department operations.
So what we have here is desperate, broke police departments that have been serving under a “Gut The State” federal government (facilitated by both Republican and Democratic leadership) for decades, and so the cops are understandably looking to bring in new funding. Unfortunately, they’ve resorted to stealing from taxpayers, and the bullied, intimidated, and most importantly, poor citizenry can’t afford to fight back.
More than 80 percent of federal seizures are never challenged in court, according to [attorney David Smith, author of the legal treatise Prosecution and Defense of Forfeiture Cases]. To supporters of forfeiture, this statistic is an indication of the owners’ guilt, but opponents argue it simply reflects the fact that in many cases the property was worth less than the legal costs of trying to get it back.
The average Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) property seizure in 1998 was worth about $25,000. In 2000 a Justice Department source told the PBS series Frontline that this figure was also the cutoff under which most forfeiture attorneys advised clients that their cases wouldn’t be worth pursuing.
As Balko points out, this system is built to guarantee laws aimed at nailing drug kingpins ultimately affect the poor who can’t hire attorneys to defend them.
Fast forward to the inevitable outcome. Release the Kraken!
Tiny Tenaha, Texas, population 1,046, made national news in 2008 after a series of reports alleged that the town’s police force was targeting black and Latino motorists along Highway 84, a busy regional artery that connects Houston to Louisiana’s casinos, ensuring a reliable harvest of cash-heavy motorists. The Chicago Tribune reported that in just the three years between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha police stopped 140 drivers and asked them to sign waivers agreeing to hand over their cash, cars, jewelry, and other property to avoid arrest and prosecution on drug charges. If the drivers agreed, police took their property and waved them down the highway. If they refused, even innocent motorists faced months of legal hassles and thousands of dollars in attorney fees, usually amounting to far more than the value of the amount seized. One local attorney found court records of 200 cases in which Tenaha police had seized assets from drivers; only 50 were ever criminally charged.
It’s like a state-approved bank robbery. But as long as the occasional bad guy got nailed, it’s worth the civil liberties infringements, right?
In a 1994 study reported in Justice Quarterly, criminologists J. Mitchell Miller and Lance H. Selva observed several police agencies that identified drug supplies but delayed making busts to maximize the cash they could seize, since seized cash is more lucrative for police departments than seized drugs. This strategy allowed untold amounts of illicit drugs to be sold and moved into the streets, contrary to the official aims of drug enforcement.
“There’s also the temptation for prosecutors to offer a plea on the criminal charges in exchange for forfeiting some of the property,” says Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. “If you support the drug laws—and not all of us do—but if you support them, you have to question the incentives.”
Not to mention the greedy lawyers from private practices, like Gambill, who are making a killing from the asset seizure industry.
Gambill manages civil forfeiture cases for several Indiana counties, and he gets to keep a portion of what he wins in court. “My contingency for my own county is a quarter; for the others it’s a third,” Gambill says.
Gambill not only argues and briefs Putnam County forfeiture cases; he also determines which cases the county pursues in the first place. That means nongovernmental forfeiture attorneys are making criminal justice decisions that directly bolster their incomes.
I’m sure nothing will go wrong there.
Worse still, this seized money oftentimes went to pay for superfluous stuff. For example, NPR reports that police officers in the small town of Kingsville, Texas drive “high-performance Dodge Chargers and use $40,000 digital ticket writers. They’ll soon carry military-style assault rifles, and the SWAT team recently acquired sniper rifles.” Why a town with a population of 25,000 needs this kind of high tech equipment is anyone’s guess. I’m sure the cops are having a blast playing with their new toys, though.
Then there’s former Kimble County, Texas, District Attorney Ron Sutton, who used forfeiture money to pay the travel expenses for a nice vacation conference in Hawaii for himself and 198th District Judge Emil Karl Pohl.
It was OK, the prosecutor told NPR, because Pohl approved the trip.
(The judge later resigned over the incident.)
This week, the Institute for Justice has launched a national campaign against civil asset forfeiture (h/t Agitator)
Policing for Profit - The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
The official IJ website states that “civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today.” I would only add that these seizures also represent a colossal failure by the federal government.
State and local law enforcements are not comprised of evil people, but when their budgets dried up, they had to bring in revenue from somewhere. The stupid War on Drugs seemed like a good place to find some quick cash. Of course, for the reasons stated above, this new industry ultimately hurt poor people. And the drugs keep coming (and will forever come) into the US.
America is a weird country. Its leaders love the free market so much that they’re willing to privatize everything while the public sector flounders. Everything is for sale. Prisons are being privatized. The post office just announced it will have to cut Saturday deliveries to save money. (Why bother with the archaic P.O. when Fedex is the better private sector option?)
Meanwhile, private companies make billions of dollars in profits from war, and now we have private armies that kill poor, brown people for a profit, and most importantly, can’t be held accountable for their crimes!
Even our bodies are for sale. A company most recently tried to patent the genes that give humans cancer, and charged women more than $3000 to test for genetic mutations. (Thankfully, a sane judge overturned the patents and pointed out what Dr. Jonas Salk knew some fifty years ago: humans cannot own nature).
So it’s no surprise that basic functions of the state (like law enforcement) aren’t being properly funded, and as a result state and local governments are picking the lint from citizens’ pockets. Look at the federal role models these servants have. Jobs that used to be very clearly the realm of public servants are increasingly being hijacked by federal-corporate goons.
I can’t stress it enough: read Balko’s whole article. There are all kinds of reasons why the asset seizures: A) Violate civil liberties, and B) Don’t actually work to prevent crime, and actually increase the likelihood of corruption.