Pubdate: Tue, 29 Oct 2013

Source: Nation, The (US)
Copyright: 2013 The Nation
Author: Jesse Lava and Sarah Solon


How police across the country are using civil asset forfeiture to
seize people's houses, cars and cash to make money for their

Leon and Mary Adams had been living in their Philadelphia home for
nearly five decades. They were eating breakfast one morning last year
when armed cops streamed out of a bunch of vans and said the couple
had 10 minutes to grab their things and leave. Permanently. As in,
Leon and Mary wouldn't be allowed to come back. The cops then seized
the property so they could auction it off, all because the Adams'
grandson allegedly did a few $20 marijuana deals on the porch.

This is just one of the many stories Sarah Stillman told in The New
Yorker this summer about a "process" called civil asset forfeiture.
And it's not just happening in Philadelphia; it's happening nationwide
to people's houses, cars, cash and other property that cops seize and
sell to make money for their departments. See how it works in our
latest video in the Prison Profiteers series, a partnership between
Beyond Bars, the ACLU, and The Nation magazine:

Under many civil asset forfeiture laws around the country, cops can
take people's money and property without proving anyone guilty, or
indeed without even making an arrest. The police just have to suspect
the assets are tied in some way to illicit activity. Such was the case
with Leon and Mary Adams, and it resulted in the loss of their home.

Money that cops generate from such seizures bankroll their
departments, and sometimes even fund their own salaries. That gives
police a strong incentive to abuse civil asset forfeiture laws, search
people unconstitutionally, engage in racial profiling and over-enforce
minor offenses, needlessly increasing people's contact with the
criminal justice system. The more they seize, the better off their
departments are. Sometimes law enforcement officials seize a car
knowing that they'll be able to drive that very car on the job.
Victims often fear being jailed if they don't hand over their assets.
And if they want to challenge the seizure, they rarely have a right to
an attorney and often cannot afford one, must navigate complex
proceedings and often bear the burden of proving their innocence in
order to get their property back.

Something is deeply wrong here. When incentives are this out of whack,
abuse ensues-encouraging law enforcement to put profit above public
safety. Police in Pittsburgh used asset forfeiture cash to buy nearly
$10,000 in Gatorade. In just one month, cops from Bal Harbor, Florida,
dropped $23,704 on trips with first-class flights and luxury car
rentals. And the Milwaukee County Sheriff's office used civil asset
forfeiture funds to buy nine flat-screen TVs for $8,200, andtwo
Segways for $14,500.

The Nation is facing a crippling postal rate hike-donate by October 31
to help us foot this $120,272 bill.

These stories seem almost comical until you consider the people picking
up the tab, who are disproportionately racial minorities. Consider the
case of an African-American man driving fromVirginia Beach to
Wilmington, Delaware:

He was stopped by police on June 16, 1998, while driving from Virginia
Beach to Wilmington, Delaware. The police officer who stopped him
claimed that a taillight was out, which was untrue. Once stopped, the
officer subjected him to a search by a drug dog, claiming that he
"looked like a drug dealer." The officers asked him if he was carrying
drugs, guns or money. He replied that he had $3,500 in cash. The
officer seized the money, claiming that it must be the proceeds of
drug dealing=C2=85The gentleman was never charged with a crime.

The man never got his money back.

Some states are working to stop this type of abuse. But even where
some state laws are stricter, state cops can still take advantage of a
loophole called "equitable sharing," which allows them to seize
property under federal law and keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds.
That's a loophole that must be closed if we're to have a fair criminal
justice system. Otherwise, civil asset forfeiture will remain one more
way that our system has gotten way too large, intrusive, corrupt and
unfair, as the rest of our Prison Profiteers series highlights.

Tell the Department of Justice: Don't let cops use federal law to ignore
stronger state asset forfeiture protections. State and local cops should
have to follow state laws if they're stricter than federal law.
Jesse Lava and Sarah Solon
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