One of the biggest injustices that exists in America’s “justice system” is known euphemistically as Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF). It amounts to theft by government, plain and simple.
A completely innocent person can have their cash or property seized if that physical object is suspected of being involved in a crime. A person does not need to be charged with a crime for this to take place.
A young man traveling to California to start a career as a music producer had his life savings stolen by the DEA simply because he was carrying the cash in an unorthodox fashion to the known drug “hot spot” of Los Angeles.
A Massachusetts family had their motel, valued at over $1 million, stolen from them by the local police department because a small fraction of their guests sold drugs without the owners’ knowledge.
These cases barely scratch the surface. The War on Drugs provides much of the impetus for CAF, but real crimes can also be used as a pretext. If a ranch hand uses his boss’ truck to steal copper wire from a job site, that truck can be seized even if the owner knows nothing about the theft.
Civil asset forfeiture promotes the sickly practice of policing for profit. Abuses are inevitable. Police agencies can self-finance by taking directly from the citizens without even charging them with crimes, circumventing the “proper channels” of funding and avoiding checks on abuse.
The good thing is, light is being shone on the dark places where CAF resides, and reform efforts are being pursued by the few noble politicians left in government.
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New Mexico has set the standard for 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.
California is currently debating a bill that would, among other reforms, require a federal conviction before property can be seized under federal law. The bill has widespread support, passing out of the senate with a vote of 38-1.
However, federal authorities and local law enforcement are not liking the idea that their cash cow could be butchered. An email from Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture Legal Counsel to Santa Barbara Senior Deputy District Attorney describes how they plan to cut off all funds to California agencies through the Equitable Sharing Program, even when they come from cases with a criminal conviction.
“This is a desperate and cynical attempt to derail civil forfeiture reform in California,” said Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “Discussions of dollars and cents have no place in the debate about criminal justice reform, nor do ‘desire’ or technical incapability on the part of the federal government. These documents demonstrate that despite their public statements in support of some reforms, federal officials are collaborating with local law enforcement officials to derail reform.”
Local police avoid the restrictions of California state law by teaming up with the feds to get more lucrative proceeds from CAF, as they can keep 80% of the forfeiture proceeds and no conviction is required.
The feds already made an example of New Mexico, disqualifying the state from participating in the Equitable Sharing Program, despite having no statutory or legal basis to do so.
“These emails make it clear that the DOJ is trying to make an example of New Mexico and ward off other states from curtailing the federal government's ability to forfeit private property without first obtaining a criminal conviction,” continued McGrath. “There is no public-safety rationale for law enforcement to outsource the prosecution of Californians to the federal government. Police and District Attorneys special interest groups are colluding with the DOJ to undermine California's sovereignty.”
The very presence of the Equitable Sharing Program is controversial, as it encourages policing for profit when there is no requirement of a conviction by the state. The ideal situation would be for the state to detach itself from misguided federal ventures, and abolish civil asset forfeiture in general.
Regardless, the uncovered emails show that federal government and law enforcement will not hesitate to interfere with reform efforts when it means they can steal less from the citizens.