Issues That Unite Us: Stopping The Government Looting Your Stuff

What are your thoughts on Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF)?  Don’t know what it is? Don’t care?

Okay, how about this: What are your thoughts on THE GOVERNMENT LOOTING YOUR STUFF?

You may think the government only seizes assets from criminals. You may think police only seize assets when they have legitimate reasons, and that they follow due process. But you’d be wrong.

The police can seize your assets without ever charging you with a crime.

The police have very real reasons to pillage your possessions, but they’re not what you’d think. And due process? Pfft. Because of the way CAF is defined, “due process” is but a cute, antiquated notion.

“Oh come on, now, that’s ridiculous,” you say. “Cops aren’t criminals.” Judging by the cops I know, I’d agree. They neither want to be criminals, nor want to be perceived as criminals. But Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) – as defined and as applied today – gives their supervisors incentive to send them into the streets to take our money, cars, and sometimes, homes.

Consider this situation:

You’re driving your ten year old truck through a state you’ve never been to. The truck’s a wee bit dinged up, but otherwise in good condition. You’re excited, because you’re en route to your kid’s graduation from university. In the glove box is a few thousand dollars. You intend to give both the truck and the money to your daughter as her well-earned graduation present. She’s worked hard these past four years. You want her to have a head start jumping off into her career.

Suddenly, you’re pulled over. The police officer asks for license and registration, then asks if you are carrying any large amounts of money. Being guilty of nothing, you hand over the documents, tell him about the gift of money, and consent to a search.

The police officer suspects that it’s drug money in your glove box. You again explain that it’s a gift for your daughter. You show the ticket for the graduation ceremony. The officer asserts that it’s just a cover for running drugs. They take your money …and the truck.

Bye bye truck and money … but wait – how do I get home now?

You’re never charged with a crime. You never receive letters from the police as to your rights or options.

Your stuff – the seed money for your daughter’s future – has been looted by the state.

This, my friend, is civil asset forfeiture. And it’s a direct violation of your 4th amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure.

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In other words: the government can’t take your stuff without a damn good reason.

For good measure, CAF violates your 5th amendment rights as well! Here’s the relevant bit:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

In other words – the government can’t take your stuff without due process of the law.

So how did we get here? In the seventies the FBI and police resurrected an old law. Originally it was used to seize the assets of pirates off the coast. Yes, those eye-patch wearin’, booty-lootin’ pirates from long ago. Arrrr.

While the resurrected CAF practice was primarily used against drug runners through the era of Crocket and Tubbs, over the last decade, many police departments cast a much wider net, and began regularly seizing the assets of everyday citizens – citizens who are never charged with a crime.

You see, CAF is a tricky law.  Under CAF, you aren’t charged with a crime, your assets are charged with a crime in civil court. This makes it difficult for innocent citizens to fight back. And it makes it very easy for the government to swipe your goods. Since the seventies, it’s been used against more and more citizens, and for more and more outrageous reasons.

So what are those reasons?  One is called equitable sharing, which means that police get to keep a significant portion of proceeds from seizures. Did you get that? Cops have a built in incentive to confiscate the property of law abiding citizens, and with CAF, they can!

This is where Senator Jeff Sessions enters our story. He has been nominated to be Attorney General, aka ‘top cop in the land.’  Mr. Sessions is publicly PRO civil asset forfeiture! In 2015 he said there’s “nothing wrong with having the (CAF) money be given to the officers who help develop the case.”

Wait, what happened to the concept that US citizens are innocent before proven guilty?

Between ‘equitable sharing’ and ‘starve the beast’ budget cuts that have crossed our country in the last decade, many police departments have come to rely on CAF for their own funding. This should terrify us all. With CAF, police incentives work directly against every American citizen. We are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, but CAF “creates incentives that distort the efforts of police departments away from preventing and solving the worst crimes and toward finding the most lucrative pieces of property to seize.”

And get this: Your only recourse, should your assets be taken, is to sue in civil court. Because you weren’t charged with a crime, your assets were.  Consider these CAF case names:

  • United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film
  • United States v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency
  • United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
    (see more here)
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA VERSUS …. A pile o’ shark fins

Yes – the government can charge your money, your house, your car, and even a pile of shark fins with criminal conduct. That’s not the worst part. The worst part is that they can loot your stuff without ever charging you with a crime. WHAT?

THEY CAN LOOT YOUR STUFF WITHOUT EVER CHARGING YOU WITH A CRIME.

 

WAS THAT LOUD ENOUGH ? ? ? ? ? ?

 

How has this happened?  Don’t we have rights to our property?  Yes. Our right to property is guaranteed by the 4th amendment, and CAF clearly violates it. So how is this happening? Well, from my perspective, while we’ve been distracted by identity politics, blaming each other for all that’s wrong in the world, CAF has become a regular and accepted practice in our police and judicial system. It’s been encouraged along by radical activist (and somewhat clueless) judges as well as the incoming AG. This incoming administration is inheriting the ability to seize your home and assets without ever charging you with a crime. It’s a wee bit scary.

Are you with me? Are you unwilling to throw away our constitutional rights in order to make it slightly easier to bust drug traffickers and drug offenders? I’m not.

So why are more people not railing against this injustice? What’s the point in having the bill of rights if we don’t protect them? We don’t deserve any rights if we fail to demand they be upheld – and upheld for EVERY citizen. It may be happening to ‘them’ now – but when will it be you, or someone close to you?

Some people argue that most middle-class people don’t care about CAF because it’s typically the poor and disenfranchised who are targeted by police. For example, one investigation found,

“Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. … “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said.”

But that seems cynical to me. However, it’s one of the only explanations I’ve come across to explain why everyday Americans aren’t up in arms over these 4th amendment violations by the state against its citizens.

Civil Asset Forfeiture violates our 4th Amendment right

Why are so many people either glib or unaware of this injustice? It’s clear that even our president fails to grasp that CAF is unAmerican … perhaps he doesn’t even know what it is. Watch this.

Not everyone is so unaware. Check out this tweet by Pennsylvania senator Daylin Leach. He reacts, uh, colorfully, to our POTUS joking about destroying the career of a Republican Senator Konni Burton (TX). Destroy the career of an upstanding senator who is courageously defending our constitutional rights.

While some of us, like Daylin Leach are outraged by CAF, it seems the majority of us are unaware of it. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because the media is distracted with spectacle rather than news? \_( )_/? I dunno. In the meantime, police departments are becoming ever more brazen.

I presented this case to my aunt. She and I tend to be opposites on the political ideology spectrum. But it turns out that on CAF we totally agree. After a few email exchanges on the topic, she summarized the heart of the issue far more succinctly than I ever had. She replied, “This law can turn cops into crooks.”  Exactly right.

To reiterate – don’t blame the cops, blame the civil policies and laws that skew their incentives. COPS DO NOT WANT TO BE CRIMINALS. Police officers want to do the right thing. But they are being drained of resources, and some of them turn to CAF as a last resort to fund their slashed budgets. Sure there are some bad apples in fringe police departments  such as the Tenaha police department in Texas, which became a criminal enterprise. However, most police departments only want to protect and serve. Let’s help them do that by doing away with CAF.

WHAT’S BEEN DONE THUS FAR?

Short answer: not much.  As far as I can tell, the media has produced exhaustive investigative reports, but they haven’t circulated widely. The result is that while the issue is well documented, not many people are aware of it.

As for legislative action, a few bills have been introduced in the Senate. But they’ve died on the vine. The most recent was senate bill S.255, The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act of 2015 (The FAIR Act). ”

Among other things, the FAIR act would

(1) Ensure that a person contesting a civil forfeiture has legal representation. 
(2) Increase the federal government's burden of proof in civil forfeiture proceedings. 
(3) Require the government to establish by clear and convincing evidence that the owner of seized property knowingly consented to the use of the property (in a crime).
(4) Remove incentives for carrying out civil forfeitures: proceeds from CAF to be deposited into the General Fund of the Treasury, rather than to Department of Justice accounts for law enforcement activities.
(5) Require probable cause hearings.
(6) The Attorney General to report to Congress and the public on forfeitures the amounts received from criminal and civil forfeitures.

All of these provisions would restore the protections of our constitution. If you agree that CAF violates our constitutional rights, then you may agree that the FAIR act would be a positive step forward in shoring up those rights.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

Call your Senators. Tell them something like this:

“Civil Asset Forfeiture regularly violates my fellow citizens’ fourth amendment rights. If you want my vote next time around, then you need to do two things.

“First, oppose the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General. As recently as 2015, Mr. Sessions has stated that he considers Civil Asset Forfeiture to be a legitimate tool for police to use – even though the loot they seize goes directly to their own budgets.

“Secondly, I expect you to outlaw this practice once and for all. You can start by pushing for S.255 the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act of 2015 or the FAIR Act. “

Next, call your US representative in the house, and your State representative who sits in your state legislature. Tell them something like this:

“Civil Asset Forfeiture regularly violates my fellow citizens’ fourth amendment rights. If you want my vote next time around, then outlaw this practice in our great state of _______ once and for all.”

Lastly, read up on the subject. Here are some very thorough investigative pieces on CAF if you have the time and interest to read up on the subject:

Institute For Justice’s “Policing for Profit”
Cato Institute comment’s on IJ’s Policing For Profit”
Taken (The New Yorker)
Stop and Seize (Washington Post)
Civil Forfeiture (video) Last Week Tonight

… and some further reading material, including all of the references linked in my blog post above:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/23/cops-took-more-stuff-from-people-than-burglars-did-last-year

https://www.justice.gov/criminal-afmls/equitable-sharing-program

http://www.nber.org/digest/oct04/w10484.html

http://www.drugpolicy.org/distorted-financial-incentives-enforcement

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2015/01/22/the-supreme-courts-massive-blind-spot

http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeleef/2017/01/03/sessions-has-no-problem-with-civil-asset-forfeiture-and-thats-a-problem/#46cbc07d2d38

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/08/12/taken

https://thinkprogress.org/oklahoma-police-just-made-it-easier-than-ever-to-seize-someones-money-7b106e9605e1#.zgdht0xzd

http://www.ij.org/images/pdf_folder/other_pubs/assetforfeituretoemail.pdf

https://www.cato.org/events/policing-profit-abuse-civil-asset-forfeiture

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/06/stop-and-seize/

 

My first attempt at a catchy meme on CAF. You’re right, it’s a bit wordy. I still kinda like it though:

Just a wee reminder: the incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks that CAF is a legitimate tool for the government to use.  As Americans, most of us cherish our constitutional rights, especially those afforded by the first ten amendments. Please contact your representatives at the federal level and demand they oppose his nomination.

Want to read more issues that unite us as Americans?  Here’s one: Corporations are not People!