Stop whatever you’re doing and read Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker piece on civil forfeiture. I read it last night, and found myself slack-jawed that this actually goes on in the United States of America. In many places, the police are using laws designed to help them advance the drug war to confiscate property from ordinary citizens who haven’t been charged with anything. Here’s what happened to a Houston couple driving to see the woman’s father, where they intended to buy a used car with cash. They made the mistake of driving through the little town of Teneha, which, it turns out, has a racket in stopping innocent people and stealing their stuff. Here’s how it works:
Were there any drugs in the car? When Henderson and Boatright said no, the officer asked if he and his partner could search the car.
The officers found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. In a corner there, two tables were heaped with jewelry, DVD players, cell phones, and the like. According to the police report, Boatright and Henderson fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.” The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)
The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.
“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.
Though it happens a lot in Tenaha — through which you never, ever should drive — but it by no means only happens in Tenaha. It happens all over our country. The idea behind it is this:
The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “this used to be a drug dealer’s car, now it’s ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.
In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.
The problem is these laws allow the police to assume that you’re guilty until proven innocent. And when you lack the legal resources to challenge these seizures, you are out of luck. These cases disproportionately fall on the poor and minorities. Stillman tells of an outrageous story from Philadelphia in which the authorities seized the house of an elderly, sick, inner-city black couple whose adult son, living with them, was arrested for selling pot from the front porch. There’s another story about a Hispanic Pentecostal churchman, an alien in this country legally, who was pulled over in Virginia. There was no contraband in the car, and the church secretary was not charged with any crime. But the officer seized $28,000 in cash the churchman was going to use on that journey to buy property for his congregation. From the story:
“We could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the money was church money from parishioners’ donations,” David Smith, who was a deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office during the Reagan Administration and now defends the policy’s targets pro bono, told me last January. Only after he intervened were the funds returned. “But these were people who didn’t have the means to fight back. They weren’t well-to-do. They didn’t know any senators or congressmen, they weren’t citizens. They had no voice.”
The corruption comes in large part, Stillman shows, by the law allowing local police forces to keep most or all of the assets they’ve seized. This provides an incentive for cops to grab as much as they can. Stillman reports that many cash-strapped police departments depend on this highway robbery to fund their operations.
Please, read the whole thing. If you think you are immune to this kind of abuse by the state, think again. Remember, these people did nothing wrong — and still, they got robbed by the police, in a way that’s legal.