For decades now, federal government and their cohorts in law enforcement have been carrying out theft of the citizenry on a massive scale. We’re not talking about taxes, but an insidious power known as Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF).
The 1980's-era laws were designed to drain resources from powerful criminal organizations, but CAF has become a tool for law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to steal money and property from countless innocent people.
No criminal charge is required for this confiscation, resulting in easy inflows of cash for law enforcement departments and the proliferation of abuse. This phenomenon is known as “policing for profit.”
The Free Thought Project has obtained an exclusive interview with Stephen Mills, chief of police at the Apache, Oklahoma police department. Mr. Mills is an outspoken critic of CAF, with appearances at public meetings and well-reasoned opinions.
In our interview, Mr. Mills describes how he was a victim of CAF, despite having no knowledge whatsoever of the alleged crime carried out by another person using his property. Even the most decorated and honorable of employees within law enforcement can fall prey to the scourge of civil asset forfeiture.
The mechanism by which CAF steals money and property from citizens relies on a legal fiction of inanimate responsibility for a crime, based on an archaic legal concept of English monarchy known as “deodand.”
In today's Republic, CAF circumvents due process and the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.”
“When government agents suspect wrongdoing, they sometimes initiate proceedings against property that is in some way connected with the suspected criminal activity. With respect to drug laws, that can mean the vehicles used to transport drugs and cash, any cash suspected of being derived from drug sales, or even entire homes where drug activity is suspected of taking place. In business regulation, it can mean the seizure of entire business bank accounts based on an agent’s belief that the deposits don’t look right.
The proceedings are allowed to continue even when there isn’t enough evidence of wrongdoing to charge the owner/possessor with a crime. Even where there is a criminal case, an acquittal of all charges doesn’t necessarily mean the person will have their property returned.” – CATO Institute
What this amounts to, in thousands of cases every year, is unbridled theft because a law enforcement agent states a mere belief that the property is involved in a crime.
Even when the owner has no reason to fear a criminal charge, the seized asset is usually left in the hands of authorities because it’s too much trouble to get the property back, often involving steep legal fees. Some people simply fear being targeted by police for wanting their stuff back.
The Department of Justice has swelled its forfeiture fund to billions of dollars since 1980 while state and local law enforcement make hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
In the case of Officer Stephen Mills, his property was seized after an employee used it to commit an alleged crime, even though he knew nothing about it.
While Mr. Mills was in Texas, someone with a truck registered to his name was observed stealing copper wire from an oilfield site. A few days later, sheriff’s deputies arrested an employee of Mr. Mills at his ranch and seized the truck from his carport.
Mr. Mills assumed the truck was taken as evidence and would be returned, but upon calling the sheriff’s department he found that they were seizing the truck under civil asset forfeiture.
“I spoke to several people at the sheriff’s department trying to explain who I was and that it was my truck and not the ranch hand's. I was told that it wasn’t my truck even if it was registered in my name and the title was in my name. I was told it didn’t matter that I didn’t have anything to do with it since the truck is considered guilty of the crime. I pointed out that I had an absolute innocent owner defense and was told, “How do we know you didn’t have something to do with it? Maybe we should start looking at you.” I told them they could look all they wanted. This went on for a few weeks and then my calls stopped getting returned.”
After six months of waiting for the seizure paperwork to come through, Mr. Mills contacted the Chickasha Express Newspaper, who then called the District Attorney’s office for comment. It was only after he went to the media that Mr. Mills got a call saying he could pick up his truck from the sheriff’s impound lot.
He said “the keys were missing, it had a broken window, flat tire and the antenna was all bent up.” The sheriff in charge during these events served one term and was not re-elected.
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If Officer Stephen Mills, who possesses an impressive record and an honorable reputation within law enforcement, had this much trouble getting his property back, imagine what it must be like for other citizens.
An egregious example of civil asset forfeiture happened to Joseph Rivers in May, who was traveling to California to pursue a career as a music producer. His life savings and family donations - $16,000 - were stolen by the DEA during a train stop because he was carrying the cash in an unorthodox fashion to a known drug “hot spot” called Los Angeles. Despite there being no evidence of an actual crime, Rivers is still waiting for his money to be returned, which may never happen.
Officer Mills offers a solid perspective on civil asset forfeiture as it relates to traditional law enforcement.
“Taking someone’s property because they committed a crime with it, or because it’s a product of the crime, is a punishment for the crime. Only the government can punish someone for a crime. We have a judicial system for this and it requires a guilty conviction for a crime. When a citizen gets a civil judgment, it is restitution, not punishment. The object is to make the injured party whole, not better off than they were before.
In civil asset forfeiture the government is circumventing the judicial system and all its requirements of due process to levy punishment for a crime, under a system which has different rules of law and a much lower standard of proof.
If something is used in a crime then it is evidence of a crime, and should be taken as evidence and used to obtain a guilty conviction. As far as large sums of money being proceeds of the crime, how can you have proceeds of a crime without the ‘who, what, where and when’ of the crime? If you have this, then again you really don’t have proceeds of the crime, you still have evidence of the crime which happen to be proceeds. Use the evidence to get a guilty conviction.
We need to stop discussing if the law is being systematically abused or not. The problem isn’t that it might or might not, or is or isn’t, being systematically abused, but that it’s a bad law. If the law allows something to happen that is completely counter to our American system of right and wrong and justice, it doesn’t matter if it’s being abused or not.”
Indeed, some Oklahoma lawmakers recognize the ill nature of civil asset forfeiture and the abuses carried out under it. State Senator Kyle Loveless, a conservative Republican, has introduced the Personal Asset Protection Act that would reform Oklahoma’s CAF.
The proposed bill, now under study, would require “clear and convincing evidence” that the seized property is related to criminal activity, instead of mere suspicion. Naturally, local police spokesmen are hysterical, saying that Oklahoma would become a haven for drug cartels and terrorist organizations.
Loveless describes the situation in detail here, along with some outrageous examples of civil asset forfeiture in his state.
Although Officer Mills does not agree with every aspect of Loveless’ bill, he supports the Personal Asset Protection Act and is working with Loveless to promote reform. He believes, like any sensible person, that a criminal conviction should be required before assets can be forfeited.
New Mexico became the role model for CAF reform when Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill in April that effectively abolished CAF by requiring a criminal conviction before the government can seize property.
Federal bureaucrats are on record opposing state efforts at CAF reform. Police lobbyists managed to kill off CAF reform attempts in California last week, despite overwhelming support in the legislature and the public. Neither the federal government nor most local law enforcement is ready to give up their cash register known as civil asset forfeiture.
However, the tide is turning as this gross injustice continues to be exposed, and the few noble politicians left in government work against CAF on behalf of civil rights and decency.
In poetic fashion, the seizure of Officer Mills’ truck may prove to be one of the biggest mistakes authorities made in Oklahoma, one that could help bring about the downfall of civil asset forfeiture.
Stephen Mills is currently the Chief of Police in Apache Oklahoma. He has an Advanced Peace Officer Certification as well as Instructor and field training officer certifications from the State of Oklahoma.
Stephen has a Bachelors degree, with honors, from Upper Iowa University in Public Administration. He is a graduate of the Norman Police Academy as well as the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Special Agents Academy and has numerous Federal Law Enforcement certifications. Additionally, Stephen was employed by Central Texas College as a Criminal Justice Teacher where he taught Ethics in Law Enforcement.
Stephen retired from the Criminal Investigations Detachment in 2011, after 25 years of service, as an accredited Federal Agent. His latest post was as the Chief of the Central Texas Counter Drug Task Force which worked with various local and federal Law Enforcement agencies to combat the flow of drugs North of Austin to the Red River.
Additionally Stephen has served as the Special Agent in charge of resident agencies in Alabama, Oklahoma, Korea and Kuwait as well as commanding a forward deployed unit in Iraq. He was assigned as U.S. representative to the international Counter Drug Committee in Seoul Korea. He has been assigned to Counter Drug and White Collar crime teams in Alabama and Louisiana and was Chief of a Multi National Counter High jacking task force in the Eastern District of Iraq.
Stephen has received letters of commendation from the FBI and the DEA and received the Bronze star during his first tour in Iraq.
He is a life member of the Disabled Veterans Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans Associates as well as a member of Lions International.
Stephen is also owner operator of Three Mile Ranch, a Natural Beef Cattle Operation in Southern Grady County East of Rush Springs. He is a member of the Oklahoma Cattleman’s association and a graduate of the Cattleman’s leadership academy. He has a Master Cattleman’s certificate from OSU and is a Noble Foundation cooperating ranch.