Civil Asset Forfeiture: Your Property is Guilty Until You Prove It Innocent?

“C ivil Asset Forfeiture is meant to combat criminal activities, but there are enough cases of the power being abused that this news is very disturbing to me. There have been many times when I have been going around the city with tons of cards and I can only imagine how that might look. Giving officers the ability to simply take the money seems a step too far.”

This is the crux of this article written by Shawn Coomer of Miles to Memories earlier today pertaining to the apparent movement of the civil asset forfeiture to gift cards in the state of Oklahoma — but the alleged abuse of the civil asset forfeiture procedure has been a problem for years.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: Your Property is Guilty Until You Prove It Innocent?

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process in which law enforcement officers may — without permission or advance notice — seize assets from anyone who is suspected of being involved with a crime or illegal activity; and the owners of the property which is taken are not necessarily required to be charged with any wrongdoing.

“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources”, according to this article from the American Civil Liberties Union. “But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.”

This excellent video from The Washington Post highlights people who became victims of the abuse of civil asset forfeiture allegedly committed by law enforcement officers.

According to this article written and compiled by Michael SallahRobert O’Harrow Jr.Steven Rich and Gabe Silverman for The Washington Post, “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.”

The Problems With Fighting Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture

If you happen to be the target of obvious abuse of civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement, you could challenge it — and the odds of you being successful of having your assets returned to you is 41 percent…

…but be prepared to spend more than a year of your time going through the legal process — as well as the costs of implementing legal action against the government, which may not be worth your time and money…

…and unscrupulous law enforcement officers might count on just that — never mind that you will most likely be required to sign an agreement to indemnify law enforcement officers from being sued by you.

“A 55-year-old Chinese American restaurateur from Georgia was pulled over for minor speeding on Interstate 10 in Alabama and detained for nearly two hours”, according to an excerpt from the aforementioned article from The Washington Post. “He was carrying $75,000 raised from relatives to buy a Chinese restaurant in Lake Charles, La. He got back his money 10 months later but only after spending thousands of dollars on a lawyer and losing out on the restaurant deal.”

There are plenty of additional details and information in that article about which you might be interested in reading.

You could be as fortunate as Tan Nguyen, who was fully reimbursed for the $50,000.00 in casino winnings which was confiscated from him by a deputy in Nevada — plus $10,000.00 to cover the fees of the services of an attorney — according to this article written by Nick Sibilla of Forbes.

The crime committed by Tan Nguyen which started this entire ordeal was that he was speeding: he was driving three miles per hour in excess of the legal speed limit.

According to this article written by Dick M. Carpenter II, Lisa Knepper, Angela C. Erickson and Jennifer McDonald for the Institute for Justice, “Civil forfeiture laws pose some of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today, too often making it easy and lucrative for law enforcement to take and keep property—regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence.” In that article, states are graded — and while many states were graded with a D-, North Dakota and Massachusetts received a grade of F for their civil forfeiture laws.

A Step in the Right Direction

A summary of an opinion by Stephen Reinhardt which was concurred by Andrew D. Hurwitz — both judges for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit — stated that “The panel vacated the district court’s order awarding attorney’s fees under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (“CAFRA”) to a claimant who prevailed against the federal government in a civil asset forfeiture action, and remanded for recalculation of the award.” This was the result of a search for evidence of the cultivation of marijuana in the house of Robert Moser, who had $28,000.00 seized by federal agents who had neither a warrant nor consent by Moser; and because a district court of the federal government of the United States found that serious constitutional violations were committed against Moser, the plaintiff should have been entitled to an award of the $50,775.00 spent on fees for the services of an attorney — but the district court ruled on awarding only $14,000.00 to Moser based on archaic statutory rates for attorneys, which was overruled by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

That is a small victory of sorts for people who have been subjected to the abuse of civil asset forfeiture — but certainly not nearly enough to dissuade the practice from continuing to occur in the future.

Summary

Shawn Coomer has good reason to express trepidation pertaining to the potential abuse of civil asset forfeiture to extend to gift cards — as though expiration dates, fees and fraudulent abuse committed by employees of merchants of gift cards are not enough about which to be concerned. The good news — if you could call this good news — is that a gift card is relatively easy to hide.

You will most likely not be a target of abuse of civil asset forfeiture — which can occur during your travels — but one way to obviously attempt to avoid that from happening to you is to simply not commit a crime, infraction or violation of the law…

…and even that may not be enough to stop a rogue law enforcement officer from committing an act which is equivalent to legally stealing property from you.

As I advised in this recent article pertaining to 14 Tips on How You Can Prevent Theft in Hotels and Aboard Airplanes, “If you can, separate your valuables — such as cash or jewelry — and do not keep them consolidated in one place. This way, if anything is stolen, the chances of all of your valuable items being stoled are decreased. Better yet, never carry any item which you cannot bear to lose — rather, leave it secured at home.” This is the single best way to prevent theft — whether illegally by a criminal or legally by a corrupt law enforcement officer.

In the meantime, the policies and procedures of civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement agencies in the United States must be revised to punish the actual criminals to whom they were intended and not be abused for the purpose of easy revenue stolen from victims under the guise of official legal activity.

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

2 thoughts on “Civil Asset Forfeiture: Your Property is Guilty Until You Prove It Innocent?”

  1. Phoenix says:

    John Oliver also made a GREAT piece on this in one of his early seasons of Last Week Tonight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks

    I have always wondered how such a blatant violation of the US constitution can be practiced on such a massive scale, and why noone has put a stop to it.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for the link to that video, Phoenix. That was good.

      Even some of the sources in that video were the same as those used in this article.

      I never realized how significant a problem is civil asset forfeiture…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *