Pubdate: Wed, 21 Jan 2015
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald


Imagine this: You get pulled over by police. Maybe they claim you 
were seven miles over the speed limit, maybe they say you made an 
improper lane change. Doesn't matter, because the traffic stop is 
only a pretext.

Using that pretext, they ask permission to search your car for drugs. 
You give permission and they search. Or you decline permission, but 
that doesn't matter, either. They make you wait until a drug-sniffing 
canine can be brought to the scene, then tell you the dog has 
indicated the presence of drugs - and search anyway.

Now imagine that no drugs are turned up, but they do find a large sum 
of money and demand that you account for it. Maybe you're going to a 
car auction out of state, maybe the money is a loan from a relative, 
maybe you just don't trust banks. This is yet something else that 
doesn't matter. The police insist that this is drug money. They 
scratch out a handwritten receipt and, without a warrant, without an 
arrest, maybe without even giving you a ticket for the alleged 
traffic violation, they drive away with your money.

You want it back? Hire a lawyer. You might be successful  in a year 
or two. Or you might not. Either way, it's going to cost you, and if 
the amount in question is too small, getting an attorney might not be 
practical. Would you spend $5,000 to (maybe) recover $4,000? No. So 
the police keep your money  your money  and you swallow the loss.

You find that scenario far-fetched? It's not fetched nearly as far as 
you think.

Just since 2008, there have been more than 55,000 "civil asset 
forfeitures" for cash and property totaling $3 billion. And for every 
actual drug dealer thus ensnared, there seems to be someone like 
Mandrel Stuart, who told The Washington Post last year that he lost 
his business when police seized $17,550, leaving him no operating 
funds. Or like Ming Tong Liu, who lost an opportunity to buy a 
restaurant when police took $75,000 he had raised from relatives for 
the purchase.

So one is heartened at last week's announcement from Attorney General 
Eric Holder that the federal government is largely abandoning the practice.

The civil asset forfeiture has been a weapon in the so-called "War on 
Drugs" since the Nixon years. Initially conceived as a way to hit big 
drug cartels in the wallet, it has metastasized into a Kafkaesque 
nightmare for thousands of ordinary Americans. Indeed, the Post 
reports the seizures have more than doubled under President Barack Obama.

Now the administration is pulling back. Not that Holder's 
announcement ends the practice completely  state and local 
governments are free to continue it on their own. What ends, or at 
least is sharply curtailed, is federal involvement, i.e., a program 
called "equitable sharing," under which seized property was "adopted" 
by the feds, meaning the case was handed off to Washington, which 
took 20 percent off the top, the rest going into the local treasury.

Ask your local law enforcement officials if they will be following 
Holder's lead. And if not, why not?

Because  and this should go without saying  in a nation with a 
constitutional guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures" 
there is something obscene about a practice that incentivizes police 
to, in essence, steal money from law-abiding citizens and leaves said 
citizens no reasonable recourse for getting it back.

Yet, this is precisely what has gone on for years without notice, 
much less a peep of protest, from we, the people  proving yet again 
that we the people will countenance great violence to our basic 
freedoms in the name of expedience. The insult compounding the 
injury? The expedience didn't even work and has had no discernible 
impact on the use of illegal narcotics. To the contrary, that usage 
has thrived under the "War on Drugs."

Sadly, the Constitution has done less well.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom