Police Abuse

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket

It's time to end the practice of policing for profit.


Hey, here's a great crime-fighting idea: Let's give local police and prosecutors the authority to seize cash, cars, homes, and other property from private citizens—without a court convicting those citizens of any crime. Without, in fact, even charging those citizens with any crime. Then let the authorities sell the goods and keep the proceeds for themselves.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, now we know. In fact, we've known for a long time. Since the practice described above, called civil asset forfeiture, took off about three decades ago, its flaws have become painfully clear. The system's incentives have led some localities to turn forfeiture into little more than a shakedown operation.

That has produced untold cases like Mandrel Stuart's. Stuart, a Staunton businessman, got pulled over for a minor traffic violation. The police seized the $17,550 they found in his car. Unlike many victims of forfeiture, Stuart fought back. A jury said the government should return his money—which it did. But by then, he had lost his small barbecue joint because he didn't have the funds to keep it running.

Congress tried to rein in such abuses in 2000, when it passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. It didn't help. In 2010, the libertarian Institute for Justice produced its "Policing for Profit" report, which showed how miserably the change in federal law had failed to stem the rampant abuse. The report gave Virginia a D-minus. "Virginia's civil forfeiture laws utterly fail to protect property owners," it concluded. "Property owners bear the burden of proof for innocent-owner claims, effectively making them guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, law enforcement retains 100 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeiture."

The institute is now suing over asset forfeiture in Philadelphia, which has reaped more than $64 million from the practice over the course of a decade—and used $25 million of it to pay prosecutors' salaries. Among the plaintiffs: Chris Sourovelis and family, whose house was seized after their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs nearby.

Earlier this month The Washington Post ran its own lengthy exposé on civil asset forfeiture. It counted up tens of thousands of cash seizures on the nation's highways that funneled $1.7 billion to state and local agencies, and an additional $800 million to the feds. Only one in six seizures was challenged; 40 percent of challenges took more than a year to resolve. The series also uncovered a network called Black Asphalt that lets officers "share detailed reports about American motorists—criminals and the innocent alike—including their Social Security numbers, addresses and identifying tattoos, as well as hunches about which drivers to stop. … A thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband."

One of the cases the paper highlighted involves Victor Ramos Guzman and his brother-in-law. They were driving a rental car on I-95 south of Richmond when they were stopped for speeding. They had $28,500 in the car, which was seized by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. As it turns out, the money belonged to a Baltimore church the two men were members of. They were using it to buy land for another church. ICE eventually gave back the money. According to The Post, the Virginia State Police trooper who pulled them over is a member of the Black Asphalt network. State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller told the newspaper that "the facts of the stop speak for themselves." Yes they do.

Do some seizures fulfill the original goals of the forfeiture program—disrupting criminal enterprises while giving local police departments some badly needed revenue? Absolutely. But by the same token, you're also likely to catch a lot of bad guys and disrupt criminal enterprises if you conduct house-to-house searches of whole neighborhoods. But catching bad guys is not the prime function of law enforcement. The prime function is protecting the rights of the law-abiding. Busting bad guys is simply a means to that end.

The perversion of asset forfeiture into a moneymaking scheme for law enforcement agencies reflects a broader problem. It is a case study in how government becomes a self-dealing special interest. Other examples abound—from social welfare programs that try to erase the stigma of dependence on social welfare programs, to weapons programs even the military doesn't want—but few illustrate the problem in such bold colors. Imagine what audits would be like if IRS agents got to keep any money they said you owed. That's civil asset forfeiture in a nutshell.

The abuse has gotten so bad that two of the practice's principal originators have now repudiated their own program. John Yoder and Brad Cates ran the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Office in the 1980s. The other day, The Washington Post ran an op/ed they co-wrote—"Kill the Program We Helped Start"—in which they said "civil asset forfeiture and money-laundering laws are gross perversions of the status of government amid a free citizenry. The individual is the font of sovereignty … and it is unacceptable that a citizen should have to 'prove' anything to the government."

Exactly so. Asset forfeiture should be limited to criminal cases. The government should not use a lower standard of proof to take property simply because it thinks somebody might be up to something, maybe. If it can't prove a case, then it should not get the cash. Police departments that play by the rules should have no problem with that. And police departments that don't should have a lot less power in the first place.

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  1. Sorry to OT on firs post, but:

    Teach 5 year olds about …

    Yeah, let’s do that, but if any 2 of them actually have sex before they’re 18, they have to register for life as sex offenders.

    The proglodytes who now have total control of our public education system and almost everything else in the country are certifiable batshit insane, and they’re just getting started. This will not end well, it’s just a question of how badly it will end.

    1. 5 year olds will figure that out on their own when the time comes.

    2. To be scrupulously fair, it’s generally not the proglodytes who push for statutory rape laws.

      Which is not an endorsement of teaching 5 year olds about masturbation.

  2. John Yoder and Brad Cates, huh? Who’d they work for? Oh, yeah. Ronald Reagan.

    1. You misspelled your name, Vanneman.

  3. My progressive acquaintances are strangely silent on forfeiture, even as they flip out over private prisons.

    1. Because it deprives the enemies of the state the means to defend themselves!

      Remember all the panic in the 70’s and 80’s about drug dealers, mobsters and rich criminals hiring good attorneys who then got them out on a ‘technicality’? This was the outcome.

      That same thing is at work with proggies now. They are politically ascendant, yet they feel the backlash. They are very aware that there is a huge portion of the population that isn’t buying what they are selling and which will resist by flouting the laws that mandate correct behaviors. Like their fellow travelers the commies, the proggies cannot allow people to act incorrectly and to flout their dictates, since any deviation allows the deviants to undermine the proper operation of society.

  4. What’s the best way of getting rid of this bullshit? Repeal or through the courts?

    1. Constitutional Amendment.

      Seriously, that’s what it’s going to take to get the judges to stop allowing this made up power to operate. They have to affirmatively be told it is verboten.

      1. You mean like here:

        U.S. Constitution – Amendment 5

        Amendment 5 – Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings

        No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

        1. they have a law, there is a process…so it’s good

        2. But asset fofeiture doesn’t violate the 5th.

          The process for stripping people of their property is a legal process. It’s a horrible one, but it doesn’t take too much twisty sophistry to argue that the 5th amendment is not violated.

          I figure even a legal apprentice like Bo could write an ironclad argument to that effect.

          It would require language that mandated that criminal processes would have to be levied against a person or an organization of persons and that property could not be confiscated by the government absent a criminal conviction of the owners.

          1. If I wanted to reform the process rather than abolish it, I’d make asset forfeiture contingent on a criminal conviction of the property owner, and mandate that that proceeding has to occur after the conviction is obtained. Which has the nicely subversive side effect of encouraging the prosecution to actually follow through on that “speedy trial” thing.

          2. “A” process is not “due” process. A coin flip to determine whether they get to take your stuff is also a process, but it is not constitutionally sufficient. Civil asset forfeiture is also not constitutionally sufficient to comprise due process, and does violate the fifth amendment.

            1. I agree with WTF’s take on this. Due process clearly means some sort of legal proceeding involving the judicial branch of government.

              In that, the “how” is procedural due process. Is a law too vague? Is it applied fairly to all? Does a law presume guilt? A vagrancy law might be declared too vague if the definition of a vagrant is not detailed enough. A law that makes wife beating illegal but permits husband beating might be declared to be an unfair application. A law must be clear, fair, and have a presumption of innocence to comply with procedural due process.

              Generally, due process guarantees the following (this list is not exhaustive):

              Right to a fair and public trial conducted in a competent manner
              Right to be present at the trial
              Right to an impartial jury
              Right to be heard in one’s own defense
              Laws must be written so that a reasonable person can understand what is criminal behavior
              Taxes may only be taken for public purposes
              Property may be taken by the government only for public purposes
              Owners of taken property must be fairly compensated

              Here come all the lawyers to tell me I’m wrong and the Constitution doesn’t say what it says cuz teh Nazgul decided to change the definition of the words to give the government moar power.

              1. Well, no. You’re wrong because, as the article you’re referencing makes clear, what exactly constitutes “due process” isn’t defined in the Constitution itself and so what we have are a lot of judge-made rules about whether a particular process is adequate.

                What defenders of asset forfeiture say (and I’m not one of them; I just trouble myself to understand their arguments rather than shrieking about TEH CONSTITUSHUNZ like it’s dispositive) is that people whose property is seized are provided due process: they’re notified of the seizure and given a chance to challenge it in court, before an ostensibly-neutral magistrate. That’s the same process you receive when you’re subjected to a restraining order, which is arguably a much greater intrusion on individual liberty.

                1. Right on cue.

                  I’ll bet you are an awesome lawyer. You certainly have the asshole part down pat.

                  1. You certainly have the asshole part down pat.

                    It’s the natural result of years of interaction with aggressively ignorant laypeople. You try dealing with cunts like you, constantly, every day of your professional life.

                    1. Ah yes, only the high priests can know the true meaning of the words in the sacred scrolls. Commoners could not possibly understand the Founders words. That is only possible after spending $100K on a law degree and becoming superior to the rest of the world.

                      Pretty good job security when the law cannot possibly be interpreted by the people it applies to, without a team of lawyers arguing that words have no meaning. How do you even communicate?

                      …nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law a chicken.

                      Do you ever wonder why your profession is universally despised, you arrogant fuck? It’s because of assholes like you.

  5. The Institute for Justice is doing more than suing in Philadelphia: it recently launched an “End Civil Forfeiture” initiative with its own web site.

  6. As a punk teenager in the 1970’s I used to argue this with my dad, a circuit court judge. Law enforcement for profit is a bad idea ! Seems I was right, DAD !

    1. Your dad was just trying to teach you about the FYTW clause.

  7. “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right,” she stated. “Her grip was different, I could usually move around in the clinch against other females but couldn’t move at all in Fox’s clinch?”


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