Pubdate: Sun, 04 Jul 2010
Source: Winona Daily News (MN)
Copyright: 2010 Winona Daily News
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project.


For decades, law enforcement agencies have used property seizures to
break up large criminal organizations, but with the rise of the
so-called drug war, seizure and forfeiture of personal property owned
by innocent citizens have skyrocketed.

When police officers, often working with faulty evidence, merely
suspect that your boat, vehicle or cash has been involved in a crime,
the property can be seized under civil forfeiture laws.

In 44 states, your property will not be returned until you, the legal
property owner, prove that the property was not involved in a criminal
activity. Only in California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Michigan and
Oregon must the government prove that the property was used in
committing a crime.

Property forfeiture is a big money-maker for law enforcement,
especially small-town departments. A 2008 National Public Radio report
found that some Texas sheriffs depend on seized assets for up to
one-third of their departments' budgets, and nationwide, in 2008,
properties valued at over $1 billion were seized by police and then
made available for use by police departments nationwide.

Statistics can't measure the human toll of mistaken seizures.
According to the Washington-based Institute for Justice, "a
significant percentage of state and local forfeiture actions are
initiated against low-level drug offenders, rather than the high-level
targets that forfeiture advocates claim to be aiming for."

That is why the following stories, drawn from the Institute's new 
"Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture" report are 
valuable reminders that while the U.S. Constitution still forbids 
unreasonable searches and property seizures, the Constitution is getting 
badly battered.

Shakedown in Texas

Between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha, Texas, law enforcement officers stopped
more than 140 mostly black, out-of-state vehicles, which included a
grandmother from Akron, Ohio, and a family from Maryland. While the
officers alleged that the roadway was a major drug corridor, none of
the plaintiffs were arrested for, much less convicted of, violating
drug laws.

Upon arresting the motorists, officers took them to jail and
threatened to file charges unless they signed a pre-notarized
statement relinquishing any claim to their valuables. Officers seized
cash, cars, cell phones and jewelry. In one case, when the officers
discovered $8,500 in cash that a Tennessee motorist planned to use to
buy a car, officers threatened to charge him with money laundering
unless he turned over the cash. He surrendered the money, and only
after hiring a lawyer was he able to get it back.

An attorney representing some of the plaintiffs estimates that Tenaha
officials improperly seized more than $3 million between 2006 and 2008.

Georgia speed trap

In 2007, Lamar County, Ga., sheriff deputies stopped Chris Hunt for
speeding. The officers said they smelled burning marijuana and alcohol
in the car, claims Hunt denies, and confiscated $5,581 in cash, which
Hunt said were profits from his car refinishing business. A canine
later detected drug residue on the cash, but the officers did not find
a testable amount of drugs. Hunt was never charged with a crime.

"It was my hard-earned cash," Hunt said. "They had guns and badges,
and they just took it."

Only after hiring an attorney and filing a claim did he receive back
half of the confiscated money as part of a negotiated settlement. The
Institute's report notes that chemical tests show that up to 90
percent of U.S. currency tested is tainted with cocaine, and a federal
Drug Enforcement Agency scientist has recommended that trace analysis
for seizure be stopped.

Elderly abuse in Pennsylvania

Margaret Davis, a 77-year-old Philadelphia homeowner with serious
medical problems, was in the habit of leaving her door unlocked so
neighbors could routinely check in on her. In 2001, police chased
alleged drug dealers through Davis's front door, but they escaped out
the back. The police found drugs in plain view, presumably left by the
fleeing suspects. Later that year, the Philadelphia District Attorney
filed a motion to seize Davis' home, even though she was never a party
to any drug dealing. Only in 2003 was an attorney able to reach an
agreement with the city to withdraw the seizure petition.
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