Why Asset Forfeiture Abuse Is on the Rise

It’s time to build a wall of separation between government power and the profit motive.

Few groups of “sinners” were singled out in biblical accounts more than “tax collectors,” who were not merely state agents collecting revenues that taxpayers rightfully owed to the government. They were the source of particular loathing because they were extortionists, who profited personally by shaking down as much money from citizens as possible.

The Gospel accounts provide an early lesson in the danger of marrying the profit motive with governmental power. The possibility for abuse is great. Yet throughout the United States, government agencies increasingly rely on “civil forfeiture” to bolster their strained budgets. The more assets these modern-day tax collectors seize, the more money they have for new equipment and other things.

If one peruses court documents, one will find cases with bizarre names such as The People v. One 1999 Buick. In criminal proceedings, the government must provide wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt before gaining the power to incarcerate an accused person. But local governments realize that, under civil forfeiture laws, they can seize houses and cars and cash based on a low standard of evidence.

If, for instance, your neighbor borrowed your green Buick and sold some marijuana to an undercover agent, the law enforcement agency can seize the car. The owner might not have done anything wrong, but the car was indeed used in the commission of a crime. Activists point to instances where the government has become more creative in seeking assets—homes, cars, bank accounts—based on minor violations of the ever-expanding criminal code. One organization points to the case where the government tried to seize the tractor of a farmer accused of running over an endangered rat. As the number of regulatory crimes grows, the cases in which the government can seize assets grows along with it.

Columnist George Will wrote earlier this year of a case in Massachusetts, where law enforcement is attempting to take the motel owned by a family because of allegations that some visitors there dealt drugs from their rooms. “The U.S. Department of Justice intends to seize it, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give up to 80 percent of that to the Tewksbury Police Department, whose budget is just $5.5 million. The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime.”

As Will notes, police have an incentive to exaggerate the criminal activity there given their extreme financial incentive for taking the property. Massachusetts, he reported, has more stringent civil-forfeiture standards than federal law, so the town’s police department is, as Will put it, “conniving with the federal government” to use federal standards instead. In essence, the city’s police are violating state law so they can more easily gain the assets of the motel owners.

A similar situation exists in California. Local police agencies don’t like that our state only allows them to keep 65 percent of the proceeds from their forfeitures and imposes additional hurdles beyond federal law.

“Through a federal program called ‘equitable sharing,’ however, California police are evading strong state law and turning property over to the federal government for forfeiture,” explains the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that defends property owners. “Federal law has lower standards for forfeiting property and provides a larger share of proceeds to the police—as much as 80 percent. Due to this incentive to circumvent stricter state law in favor of more profitable federal law, from 2002 to 2009, forfeitures in California under federal law outpaced those under state law by about two to one.”

That statement was issued in support of AB639, sponsored by Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton). The bill, which passed the Assembly but is essentially dead in the Senate this year, is designed to close the loophole that encourages state and local agencies to bypass state law.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office complained that the bill’s “only purpose is to make it impossible for state/local law enforcement agencies for using federal asset forfeiture procedures.” Other law enforcement groups, including the California District Attorneys Association, likewise complained about the burden the law would place on government agencies.

But Americans should be more concerned by laws that place an unfair burden on the rights of citizens than on burdens placed on government agencies. We should all be concerned that district attorneys—who are, by law, supposed to pursue justice first and foremost—are perpetrating abuses of property rights so that they can fill their coffers with money that comes primarily from people who have not been convicted of any crime.

The proposed law is modest—it requires a court order before agencies can transfer forfeiture cases to the federal government. It insists that such cases involve true federal cases, such as those involving interstate commerce. It doesn’t ban the use of civil forfeiture, but requires California agencies to follow California law. If anything, far broader reforms are needed so that no government can use shoddy standards to take private property to help their budget situation.

There is something terribly disturbing about this “policing for profit” trend, especially in our current world where the number of laws keeps growing. We’ve all become accustomed to police increasing their ticket-writing to backfill their budgets, but asset forfeiture takes the profiteering to a new and disturbing level. Agencies know that it’s so costly for people to fight their forfeiture proceedings that many victims simply cede the property without a fight. That’s wrong.

Unfortunately, California’s legislators are far more concerned about funding the state’s enormous government than they are about protecting the rights of California citizens. In the Gospels, Jesus urged tax collectors to collect no more than they are authorized to do. In California, it’s going to take far more than an admonition to get them to follow state law.

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  • anon||

    The state can't be bothered with pesky things like "private property." I thought we covered that already.

  • Doctor Whom||

    "Private property" is a contradiction in terms anyway. If you remember your brainwashing civics class, you know that we are first and foremost arbitrary administrative divisions of the state parts of society.

  • ||

    "We regulate any stealing of his property, and we're damn good too... But you can't be no geek off the street. You gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, earn your keep."

    fucking regulators

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Mount up.

  • ||

    The government already takes whatever the fuck it wants from you; who among you agreed to have your income taxed? How is this any different? You don't own your property, you rent it from the government. If it decides it wants it, it takes it. Have fun resisting.

  • anon||

    It's a shame that the fuckwads that came up with ideas like "eminent domain" and "income tax" are already dead, because if they weren't, I'd gladly go to prison for murdering them, and then raping their corpses with huge black dildos. Maybe the rape first then murder.

  • Hyperion||

    progressives came up with the income tax right after they lost a lot of revenue by getting prohibition passed.

  • ||

    Milton Friedman gifted us with income tax withholding. Let's never forget that.

  • tarran||

    In Old Milt's defense, he maintained that he was trying to prevent a repeat of the aftermath of WW-I, where numerous economic dislocations caused by governments using the printing press to pay for the war, and the political responses that exacerbated those dislocations led to the great depression.

  • ||

    There is no defense. He gave the government its ultimate tool for stealing: spreading the pain out enough that people don't notice. He can rot in hell for that. Fuck Milton Friedman.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Agreed. Like Paterno, no matter what good Friedman did, it's outweighed by the one huge mistake.

  • tarran||

    But....

    What he lacked in brains, he made up for with good intentions!

  • MamaLiberty||

    Actually, inflation, in all of its many manifestations, is the ultimate tool for stealing. Withholding only affects those who file a W2. Inflation affects everyone. But old Milton didn't do us any favors either.

  • Brett L||

    Reaver style, eh?

  • anon||

    Fucking eh, every time the "F" word comes to my mind I get pissed off that it's never coming back, ever.

  • Loki||

    So rape them to death, eat their flesh and sew their skins into your clothing. And if they're very, very lucky, you'll do it in that order.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    "You said 'rape' twice."

  • ||

    You're too pessimistic. I deliver a hard day's work for my money. I just want the chance. It'll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody's got their own hard times these days.

  • ||

    Following rules is for suckers, JJ. It's high time you learned that.

  • Gman||

    You can get a very high degree of asset protection by placing some assets outside the USA:

    http://swisssolution.webs.com/

  • Hyperion||

    Because 'REVENUE'

  • Broseph of Invention||

    Always bicycle when you buy your pot, preferably with a helmet and basket. Always.

  • Hyperion||

    Don't forget the pony tail, man purse, sandals, round glasses, and Obozo sticker on your bike.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    $ of Dignity = (($ of car + $ of criminal conviction) * police stop and search probability) - (practicality of basket and man purse)

  • ||

    In FL you'll get ticketed if you don't have a headlight on that bicycle.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    You'll also melt and be eaten by fiddler crabs.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    RESISTANCE IS FATAL.

  • WTF||

    Why Asset Forfeiture Abuse Is on the Rise

    Because fuck you, that's why.

  • Loki||

    Dammit! I should at least skim the comments before posting (see below).

  • WTF||

    Really, it can't be said enough.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    Hell, that was my first reaction, too!

    ... Hobbit

  • ||

    I handle a fair number of these cases. In PA at least, if the property is seized illegally the government can't hold on to it. Many other states don't have that protection.

    I just won a case in the Appellate Court on this issue. Commonwealth v. $17 thousand and change. Client will eventually get his money back. Justice has prevailed. Too bad my bill is close to $15,000.00. Sorry, bub.

  • anon||

    Small price to pay for justice!

  • Loki||

    Why Asset Forfeiture Abuse Is on the Rise

    Because FUCK YOU, THAT'S WHY. Now STOP RESISTING!

  • Christina||

    Because I'm at work and don't have time to google it myself: how does civil asset forfiture NOT violate the 5th Amendment? Or I should say, what is the rationale given?

  • WTF||

    It's a civil proceeding against the property, not a criminal proceeding against the owner. Bullshit, I know, but that is how they rationalize their way around the Fifth.

  • Christina||

    Oh, I see. They're punishing the money/cars/houses for (maybe) allowing themselves to be party to illegal activity. So anthropomorfication has been codified into law.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    If you're supposed to have a jury of your peers, does that mean the jury should be full of money/cars/houses?

  • Agile Cyborg||

    There is something sinister about the hierarchical system of governance. Methinks this is why hierarchy is such a potent social/governance force. Without the ability to threaten and impose a particular will hierarchy is impotent and irrelevant. All of this revolting mess is packaged as patriotism, morality, and the social good.

    Delusion certainly comes easy to most humans.

  • Number 2||

    "The more assets these modern-day tax collectors seize, the more money they have for new equipment and other things."

    Worse...the police unions now cite the forfeiture money they bring in as a fund their employers can use to pay them even higher salaries. And the arbitrators agree with them.

    So the correct statement is: The more assets the modern-day tax collectors seize, the more money they make.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Modern day tax-farming.

  • ||

    A lot of people on the lower end of the economic spectrum have a bizarre willingness to allow themselves to be ripped off.

    I've seen people working as freelancers just give up on thousands of dollars in payments that a client hasn't paid them because "they won't give me any more business if I press them on it". It's literally insane.

    Asset foreiture seems like a similar situation. They'll let the cops waltz off with a five thousand dollar automobile and just decide it's futile to bother trying ot get it back.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Interesting point. Power cannot exist without the removal of the collective spine. This is done by creating a system where the citizen underling is overwhelmed by their own inadequacy when challenged by the supremacy of governance. Granular Pointlessness seems to be the new civilization method.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    how does civil asset forfiture NOT violate the 5th Amendment?

    Filed under "Professionalism: New".

  • ||

    Just to add to what I said above, that's also what makes it likely that the easiest targets of asset forfeiture will be poor people and minorities.

    Ordinary middle-class whites won't stand for having the cops seize a vehicle without compensation. They'd be appalled and horrified and make a huge stink about it and call their representatives. A lot of poor people and minorities will quietly accept it, either because they can't affordto fight it, or they just have a fatalistic attitude.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Or the fight will cost a lot more than the object is worth, and they're not interested in or can't afford to fight for principles. See Harvey Birdman's post about the guy getting $2,000 back from a $17,000 theft.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    A lot of poor people and minorities will quietly accept it, either because they can't affordto fight it, or they just have a fatalistic attitude.

    Subjecting yourself to the scrutiny of your overlords seldom tuns out well.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Indeed - see cf RESISTING, STOP also LIGHTNING, RIDE THE /sharp crack of Taser.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    This shit has been going on for a long time, but under the Obama administration the Agencies of Theft are coming proudly out of the asset-forfeiture closet.

    Shamelessly and openly covetous they are -- now that they know nothing can or will stop them.

  • vonnyc||

    Fantastic article! Alone for the reasons pointed out in this well-written piece, the Libertarian movement has a duty to gain maximum political influence asap. We the People have to take back the power from a Government and their corrupt lackeys gone berserk.

  • ZengaFooo||

    And until the people stand up and FIGHT, its only going to get worse!

    www.in-privacy.tk

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    If the Pigs came to take my motel because some crackhead was dealing out of Room 107, they'd get my motel eventually, but a few of them would be piled up in the morgue.

  • MamaLiberty||

    "who were not merely state agents collecting revenues that taxpayers rightfully owed to the government..."

    How is anything, ever "rightfully owed" to any non-voluntary government? All taxation is theft on the face of it.

  • BobDidit||

    This the main reason drugs are illegal...its to dam profitable for those who sell and more profitable for those who bust those who sell....its all a racket to relieve all of us of our hard earned money and property....Thats why Obammy hasn't done anything to curb this disgrace..after all aint he a democrat and they are the ones crying for legal pot and yet he has turned into a GOP stooge before our very eyes...I dont understand why the GOP hates him so much...after all he has gave them everything they asked for...and Obammy care is just another form of Romney care....only difference is elephants or jackasses....

  • Ardelle||

    One organization points to the case where the government tried to seize the tractor of a farmer accused of running over an endangered rat. As the number of regulatory crimes grows, the cases in which the government can seize assets grows along with it.

  • jason||

    All the economy is based on the tax collection so how can we ignore it.

  • Gman||

    You can get a very high degree of asset protection by placing some assets outside the USA:

    http://swisssolution.webs.com/

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