Many Americans have long felt — and have taught their children — that if they obey the law, they have no reason to fear the police. Not anymore.
A new report in the New Yorker magazine chronicles the abuse of state and federal civil forfeiture laws. Police agencies use these laws to seize billions of dollars in assets from citizens who have not been convicted, or suspected, of crimes.
For decades, police have used forfeiture laws to replenish their coffers. The original intent of the laws was to enable local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means. These assets would then be funneled back into crime-fighting efforts.
The idea of criminals underwriting police efforts to bust them with their own assets appealed to Americans’ sense of justice. But civil forfeiture laws are often abused by the people sworn to uphold them.
The New Yorker tells harrowing stories of people, usually poor and unable to fight back, whose assets were taken although they were innocent or had only a tangential connection to crime.
The examples are infuriating. An elderly couple in Philadelphia had their home seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana on the front porch. A church secretary in Virginia had $28,500 in donations confiscated by state troopers because he was speeding.
Under civil forfeiture laws, citizens don’t have to be found guilty to forfeit their assets. Law enforcement agencies are happy to exploit this loophole to the tune of $4.2 billion a year.
Citizens can appeal the seizure of their assets and the violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, but the odds are against those who do, even if they’re innocent. The ProPublica journalism group estimates that of the 2,000 civil forfeiture cases in Philadelphia between 2008 and 2012, only 30 resulted in a judge returning assets to a civilian.
The way in which police agencies applied civil forfeiture laws in these examples affronts justice, decency, and the Constitution. The story of how these laws became oppressive is starting to be told. Only when Americans understand how this legal tool has been corrupted will lawmakers do what’s needed to end its abuse.