Policing for Profit: How Civil Asset Forfeiture Has Perverted American Law Enforcement

 

Picture this: You’re driving home from the casino and you’ve absolutely cleaned up – to the tune of $50,000. You see a police car pull up behind you, but you can’t figure out why. Not only have you not broken any laws, you’re not even speeding. But the police officer doesn’t appear to be interested in charging you with a crime. Instead, he takes your gambling winnings, warns you not to say anything to anyone unless you want to be charged as a drug kingpin, then drives off into the sunset.

This actually happened to Tan Nguyen, and his story is far from unique. It’s called civil asset forfeiture and it’s a multi-billion dollar piggybank for state, local, and federal police departments to fund all sorts of pet projects.

With its origins in the British fight against piracy on the open seas, civil asset forfeiture is nothing new. During Prohibition, police officers often seized goods, cash, and equipment from bootleggers in a similar manner to today. However, contemporary civil asset forfeiture begins right where you’d think that it would: The War on Drugs.

In 1986, as First Lady Nancy Reagan encouraged America’s youth to “Just Say No,” the Justice Department started the Asset Forfeiture Fund. This sparked a boom in civil asset forfeiture that’s now become self-reinforcing, as the criminalization of American life and asset forfeiture have continued to feed each other.

In sum, asset forfeiture creates a motivation to draft more laws by the legislature, while more laws create greater opportunities for seizure by law enforcement. This perverse incentive structure is having devastating consequences: In 2014 alone, law enforcement took more stuff from American citizens than burglars did.

The current state of civil asset forfeiture in the United States is one of almost naked tyranny. Don’t believe us? Read on.

The Origins of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture has a deep history in maritime law. In many cases, it just wasn’t practical to bring owners of vessels carrying contraband in front of an American court. So customs enforcement would simply seize the contraband. But in practice, seizure of assets was rare and generally required a felony conviction in court. Oftentimes these convictions were obtained in absentia, but the point is that there was a criminal proceeding and due process.

During the Civil War, as part of sweeping attacks on liberty that included Lincoln suspending habeas corpus and obtaining an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, supporters of the Confederacy had their property confiscated without due process. Civil asset forfeiture was used during the Prohibition Era to seize assets from bootleggers and suspected bootleggers. Even innocent owners had no defense during Prohibition if their property was used in violation of the Volstead Act.  

In 1984, civil asset forfeiture entered a new phase. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act, championed by then-President Ronald Reagan, allowed for police agencies to keep the assets they seized. This highly incentivized the seizure of assets for the purpose of funding police departments rather than pursuing criminal charges. However, the game changed completely in 1996 – the year of the landmark Supreme Court decision Bennis v. Michigan (516 U.S. 442). This ruling held that the innocent owner defense was not sufficient to recover assets seized during civil asset forfeiture.

The plaintiff, Tina Bennis, was the joint owner of a vehicle with her husband John. The latter was arrested by Detroit police when caught with a prostitute on a street in Detroit, and the car was seized as a public nuisance. The court found that despite having no knowledge of the crime, there was no violation of either her property rights or her right to due process. Michigan’s law was specifically designed to deter people from using their assets in criminal activity, which the Supreme Court found to be Constitutional in a 5-4 decision. The Supreme Court likewise found that there was no right to compensation for Bennis.

Criminal Asset Forfeiture vs. Civil Asset Forfeiture

Before going any further, it’s important to delineate the differences between criminal asset forfeiture and civil asset forfeiture. The primary difference is that criminal asset forfeiture requires a conviction while civil asset forfeiture does not. However, there are other differences worth mentioning.

Civil asset forfeiture is a lawsuit against the seized object in question rather than a person. This leads to rather strange lawsuits like “Texas vs. One Gold Crucifix.” The legal burden of proof varies from one state to another, but the most common is preponderance of evidence, not reasonable doubt. What this means is juries decide if the state’s case is more likely to be true than not – not beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil asset forfeiture trial, courts can weigh the use of the Fifth Amendment. This is not true in criminal trials.

The burden of proof question becomes crucial when it comes to retrieving property. In criminal cases, assets are returned if the prosecution fails to prove the guilt of the accused. In a civil asset forfeiture trial, the accused effectively has to prove their innocence to get their property back. Thus, civil asset forfeiture is a highly attractive option for police departments looking to scare up extra scratch in tight budgetary times. What’s more, the accused is not entitled to legal counsel. This is why, in most cases, it’s not economically advantageous to try and get one’s property back. The lawyer fees will quickly eclipse whatever value the seized assets have.

A 2015 study from FreedomWorks graded the states on their civil asset forfeiture laws. Only New Mexico received an “A,” after the state passed sweeping reforms with regard to its civil asset forfeiture processes. Over half the states received a “D” or less.

Sound paranoid? Keep reading.

Continue reading Policing For Profit: How Civil Asset Forfeiture Has Perverted American Law Enforcement at Ammo.com.

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  1. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge
    DonG (skeptic)
    @DonG

    This is the tyranny of city and county bureaucrats.   They do the same thing with petty driving citations and jaywalking fines.  Cops get the blame for following along.  I would love to see police go on a national strike and refuse these practices.

    • #1
  2. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    I absolutely agree.  

    • #2
  3. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    These laws are so far from “justice” that it boggles the mind that “law enforcement agencies” would have anything to do with them. 

    These laws also often interfere with an accused person’s ability to hire a good lawyer because the accused’s assets are seized. 

    I can see seizing assets in criminal cases in which someone has been found guilty by a jury as long as those assets actually were in the possession of the convicted criminal at the time of the crime and conviction. Anything else is outside the spirit of the law. 

    This is a great post. Thank you. 

    • #3
  4. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    This passage was especially chilling:

    “To provide some context, in 2014, the total amount of civil asset forfeiture seizures in the United States was $4.5 billion. The total value of property stolen in burglaries was $3.9 billion. This means that police agencies in the United States are taking more from the American public than burglars.“

    • #4
  5. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I absolutely agree.

    I’m circling this date on my calendar. If we’re ever at a meetup, would you autograph it?

    • #5
  6. Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger
    @BryanGStephens

    I made a post in which people her actually disagreed it is wrong.

    I am with you 100 percent.

    Peolpe should take note on this one: Gary and Bryan agree.

    • #6
  7. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Aveng… (View Comment):

    I made a post in which people her actually disagreed it is wrong.

    I am with you 100 percent.

    Peolpe should take note on this one: Gary and Bryan agree.

    I remember.  To me the worst part is that this has gone on so long that it’s completely normalized, as those numbers in the article demonstrate.  Craven politicians see law enforcement getting funds that don’t have to be appropriated, and most people figure that since they are law abiding, it can’t happen to them.  A perfect storm allowing bad behavior. 

    • #7
  8. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I absolutely agree.

    I’m circling this date on my calendar. If we’re ever at a meetup, would you autograph it?

    Sure!

    • #8
  9. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    As someone who has been a former police officer I’m not in favor of civil asset forfeiture. That being said this is a legislative issue. There are states and local officials that have no desire to invest in training, or funding local police departments. Some departments will only fund two trips to the range for firearms qualification each year. I was fortunate enough to belong to an agency that had quarterly firearms qualification, as well as in-service training on a regular basis.

    The Tan Nguyen case is interesting but a link to the civil suit transcript would have been helpful. In this case I would have to believe that Mr. Nguyen’s attorney presented the 2014 Form W-2G to the court that accounted for his cash windfall. The casino would have, or should have kept 25% of his winnings, less his buy-in money to enter the the poker tournament in the event Mr. Nguyen decided not to report his winnings to the IRS.

    If in fact the deputy told Mr. Nguyen that he needed to keep his mouth shut to avoid arrest that should have started an investigation into the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department.

    Just a minor quibble the use of the Blue Lives Matter flag is certainly your right, but I’ve been in roll calls with two officers that were shot to death while on duty. I find the use of that flag in poor taste, especially in light of the fact that state, and federal legislators write the laws. I understand that it is much easier to blame police officers, because everyone sees police officers everyday, far more than they see their legislators up close and personal.

    • #9
  10. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    Just a minor quibble the use of the Blue Lives Matter flag is certainly your right, but I’ve been in roll calls with two officers that were shot to death while on duty. I find the use of that flag in poor taste, especially in light of the fact that state, and federal legislators write the laws. I understand that it is much easier to blame police officers, because everyone sees police officers everyday, far more than they see their legislators up close and personal.

    Concur.

    • #10
  11. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    The Tan Nguyen case is interesting but a link to the civil suit transcript would have been helpful. In this case I would have to believe that Mr. Nguyen’s attorney presented the 2014 Form W-2G to the court that accounted for his cash windfall. The casino would have, or should have kept 25% of his winnings, less his buy-in money to enter the the poker tournament in the event Mr. Nguyen decided not to report his winnings to the IRS.

    Thank you for pointing this out – I expected that there would be a form for the winnings and taxes paid.

    In a sane world, the casino should warn the winner to keep his form and present it immediately to the police officer. If the officer has probable cause that the receipt is phony, he would need a warrant for the confiscation. Only then would the winner need an attorney to get his money returned, and if he is found not guilty, his attorney is paid.

    Sorry for any Ricochet lawyers, but no one should need a lawyer for such an egregious misuse of the law.

    • #11
  12. Headedwest Inactive
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    If in fact the deputy told Mr. Nguyen that he needed to keep his mouth shut to avoid arrest that should have started an investigation into the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department.

    This only works if you never intend to live or drive in Humboldt County again.

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger
    @BryanGStephens

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    As someone who has been a former police officer I’m not in favor of civil asset forfeiture. That being said this is a legislative issue. There are states and local officials that have no desire to invest in training, or funding local police departments. Some departments will only fund two trips to the range for firearms qualification each year. I was fortunate enough to belong to an agency that had quarterly firearms qualification, as well as in-service training on a regular basis.

    The Tan Nguyen case is interesting but a link to the civil suit transcript would have been helpful. In this case I would have to believe that Mr. Nguyen’s attorney presented the 2014 Form W-2G to the court that accounted for his cash windfall. The casino would have, or should have kept 25% of his winnings, less his buy-in money to enter the the poker tournament in the event Mr. Nguyen decided not to report his winnings to the IRS.

    If in fact the deputy told Mr. Nguyen that he needed to keep his mouth shut to avoid arrest that should have started an investigation into the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department.

    Just a minor quibble the use of the Blue Lives Matter flag is certainly your right, but I’ve been in roll calls with two officers that were shot to death while on duty. I find the use of that flag in poor taste, especially in light of the fact that state, and federal legislators write the laws. I understand that it is much easier to blame police officers, because everyone sees police officers everyday, far more than they see their legislators up close and personal.

    I will blame the person who steals my money, thank you. The Officer could choose not to take my money. 

    I will blame the officer who pulls me over because I “swerved” 

    I will blame the officer who says “I smell pot” just to search my car.

    That being said, how is a Blue Lives Matter flag in bad taste?

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger
    @BryanGStephens

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    The Tan Nguyen case is interesting but a link to the civil suit transcript would have been helpful. In this case I would have to believe that Mr. Nguyen’s attorney presented the 2014 Form W-2G to the court that accounted for his cash windfall. The casino would have, or should have kept 25% of his winnings, less his buy-in money to enter the the poker tournament in the event Mr. Nguyen decided not to report his winnings to the IRS.

    Thank you for pointing this out – I expected that there would be a form for the winnings and taxes paid.

    In a sane world, the casino should warn the winner to keep his form and present it immediately to the police officer. If the officer has probable cause that the receipt is phony, he would need a warrant for the confiscation. Only then would the winner need an attorney to get his money returned, and if he is found not guilty, his attorney is paid.

    Sorry for any Ricochet lawyers, but no one should need a lawyer for such an egregious misuse of the law.

    It is an outrage and the officer was a bad guy. A theif. 

    • #14
  15. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Aveng… (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    The Tan Nguyen case is interesting but a link to the civil suit transcript would have been helpful. In this case I would have to believe that Mr. Nguyen’s attorney presented the 2014 Form W-2G to the court that accounted for his cash windfall. The casino would have, or should have kept 25% of his winnings, less his buy-in money to enter the the poker tournament in the event Mr. Nguyen decided not to report his winnings to the IRS.

    Thank you for pointing this out – I expected that there would be a form for the winnings and taxes paid.

    In a sane world, the casino should warn the winner to keep his form and present it immediately to the police officer. If the officer has probable cause that the receipt is phony, he would need a warrant for the confiscation. Only then would the winner need an attorney to get his money returned, and if he is found not guilty, his attorney is paid.

    Sorry for any Ricochet lawyers, but no one should need a lawyer for such an egregious misuse of the law.

    It is an outrage and the officer was a bad guy. A theif.

    Indeed.  Why believe the cop wasn’t going to just keep the money for himself?  If it were on the up-and-up even as legitimate asset forfeiture, there would be no need to “keep quiet or else.”

    • #15
  16. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    And I know it’s supposed to be irrelevant and stuff, but I’d like to just point out that $50,000 is FIVE HUNDRED $100 bills.

    I would be less worried about cops leaving a casino with that much cash, than I would be about getting mugged by someone else at the casino who saw me winning, and saw that I was foolish enough to walk out and drive off with FIVE HUNDRED $100 bills in… a suitcase?

    For that matter, it might have been that cop, or a different cop, that saw him leaving.

    Is there some reason that some people, perhaps mostly immigrants or something, don’t think anything of walking around, or driving around, even/especially at night, with FIVE HUNDRED $100 bills?

    • #16
  17. MISTER BITCOIN Inactive
    MISTER BITCOIN
    @MISTERBITCOIN

    A person is presumed innocent but his assets are presumed guilty?

     

    • #17
  18. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    I lost a lot of respect for Jeff Sessions early on when as the new AG he defended civil asset forfeiture. 

    • #18
  19. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    A TV station in South Carolina did real investigative reporting.  They found SC’s asset forfeiture laws were primarily enforced on poor blacks, people without the means to successfully recover their lost assets (typically automobiles).  And you thought our small-town speed traps were bad . . .

    • #19
  20. Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Avenger
    @BryanGStephens

    Stad (View Comment):

    A TV station in South Carolina did real investigative reporting. They found SC’s asset forfeiture laws were primarily enforced on poor blacks, people without the means to successfully recover their lost assets (typically automobiles). And you thought our small-town speed traps were bad . . .

    Of course they are.

    And every cop who engages in the practice is guilty. I am pretty sue that just following orders went out as an excuse 70 years ago.

    • #20
  21. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Aveng… (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    A TV station in South Carolina did real investigative reporting. They found SC’s asset forfeiture laws were primarily enforced on poor blacks, people without the means to successfully recover their lost assets (typically automobiles). And you thought our small-town speed traps were bad . . .

    Of course they are.

    And every cop who engages in the practice is guilty. I am pretty sue that just following orders went out as an excuse 70 years ago.

    Ugly phrasing, but true.  There’s no valid excuse for being the eyes, hands and gun of civil asset forfeiture.

    • #21
  22. Richard Fulmer Inactive
    Richard Fulmer
    @RichardFulmer

    Stad (View Comment):

    A TV station in South Carolina did real investigative reporting. They found SC’s asset forfeiture laws were primarily enforced on poor blacks, people without the means to successfully recover their lost assets (typically automobiles). And you thought our small-town speed traps were bad . . .

    Exactly.  Civil asset forfeiture amounts to a regressive tax.

    • #22
  23. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker
    @CarolJoy

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    This is the tyranny of city and county bureaucrats. They do the same thing with petty driving citations and jaywalking fines. Cops get the blame for following along. I would love to see police go on a national strike and refuse these practices.

    The bad cops who do some of these shake downs keep the money.

    I mean, Sheesh! – a guy or gal  gets shaken down for gambling winnings by some lone cop who states he’ll charge the individual with being a drug kingpin. Do you think in all these cases that the loot makes it back to the station house?

    • #23
  24. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker (View Comment):

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    This is the tyranny of city and county bureaucrats. They do the same thing with petty driving citations and jaywalking fines. Cops get the blame for following along. I would love to see police go on a national strike and refuse these practices.

    The bad cops who do some of these shake downs keep the money.

    I mean, Sheesh! – a guy or gal gets shaken down for gambling winnings by some lone cop who states he’ll charge the individual with being a drug kingpin. Do you think in all these cases that the loot makes it back to the station house?

    As in my comment #15. :-)

    • #24
  25. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker
    @CarolJoy

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    If in fact the deputy told Mr. Nguyen that he needed to keep his mouth shut to avoid arrest that should have started an investigation into the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department.

    This only works if you never intend to live or drive in Humboldt County again.

    Mendocino and Humboldt Counties have had some major problems over the years.

    I had a co worker whose son became the sex slave of a Mendocino big wig, while the boy was in HS. The parents were made out in court to be inappropriate in the way they were raising their youngest child. (They were among the most strait laced people you could ever hope to meet.)

    It took lots of money in lawyer fees and they finally managed to have their son returned back to his  home. He was 19 by then, and after all the years of depravity he had experienced while in the “care” of the Mendocino big wig, he committed suicide.

    TV shows “48 Hours” and “Dateline” covered another story of a man who killed one of the DA’s or assistant DA’s in one of California’s northern counties. The community stood behind the killer, as that was the only way the pervert would have ever been stopped.

    When I moved to California in 1981, my dad said although he was sorry I was leaving the MidWest, he was relieved for my safety. The Chicago cops in Cook County had a terrible reputation for molesting young women on the highway. They used the cop car and the badge to have the women pull over to the shoulder of the road, and then the women were at the mercy of the cops. It was not until sometime circa 2008 that this evil sadistic practice finally was stopped.

    • #25
  26. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    because everyone sees police officers everyday, far more than they see their legislators up close and personal.

    I almost never see police officers.

    • #26
  27. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    because everyone sees police officers everyday, far more than they see their legislators up close and personal.

    I almost never see police officers.

    No doubt because you’re white, and stuff…

    • #27
  28. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    because everyone sees police officers everyday, far more than they see their legislators up close and personal.

    I almost never see police officers.

    No doubt because you’re white, and stuff…

    Probably not.  They just aren’t around very much.  They don’t know the color of my skin.

    • #28
  29. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Without addressing the topic of this post, I do need to take issue with the situation of  Tan Nguyen,  That was not asset forfeiture.  It was felony armed robbery.  Plus, it was under the color of law, and a bunch of other thing.  I trust former deputy Dove is now fully employed turning big rocks into small ones.  

    • #29
  30. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    Without addressing the topic of this post, I do need to take issue with the situation of Tan Nguyen, That was not asset forfeiture. It was felony armed robbery. Plus, it was under the color of law, and a bunch of other thing. I trust former deputy Dove is now fully employed turning big rocks into small ones.

    ALL stop-and-question civil asset forfeiture is armed robbery.

    • #30
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