Asset Forfeiture

How Asset Forfeiture Allows Cops to Steal from Citizens

A Virginia lawmaker takes on policing for profit.

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It probably seemed like a bright idea at the time: Let the police seize the ill-gotten gains of alleged drug dealers and other suspected criminals and sell it, using the proceeds to buy much-needed crime-fighting gear.

Unfortunately, the process—civil asset forfeiture—did not require convicting anybody of a crime. In fact, it didn't even require charging anybody with a crime. Not surprisingly, this led to rampant abuse, which has been abundantly documented for many years. Various reform efforts, including a 2000 federal law, have been unable to stop what's become known as policing for profit.

But Virginia lawmaker Mark Cole is going to give it another shot. That's as good a sign as any that civil asset forfeiture has jumped the shark.

You can't get much more conservative than Cole, a Republican who represents Spotsylvania in the General Assembly, without falling off the edge of the political spectrum. Cole supports "traditional family values" — so much so that he voted against appointing a Richmond prosecutor and former Navy pilot to a judgeship because he was gay. Cole has sponsored legislation to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants. And to strip state funding for abortions even in cases where the fetus has "gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency." And to rewrite a state prohibition against guns in schools so private schools could set their own rules. Four years ago, he sponsored a bill to protect people from having microchips implanted in their bodies, in part because such microchips might be used as the "mark of the beast" described in Revelations.

On his website, Cole boasts of supporting law enforcement. "Public safety and emergency services are Mark Cole's top priorities," reads a quote from Stafford County Sheriff Charlie Jett. "He helped ensure that funding was available for pay raises for deputies and state troopers. He has been a strong voice for us in Richmond."

But policing for profit has gone too far, even for Cole. In anticipation of the 2015 legislative session, he already has filed a bill (HB 1287) that would forbid asset forfeiture without a conviction—and even then only after all appeals have been exhausted.

That would have saved a lot of misery for people such as Mandrel Stuart, who couldn't afford to keep his Staunton barbecue business going after police seized more than $17,000 from him in a minor traffic stop. Unlike many in such straits, Stuart did not agree to settle for half his money back and a promise not to sue. He won in court, but still lost his business.

Taking property from people who haven't been charged with any crime is "fundamentally un-American," Cole told the online news organ Watchdog.org. His stance puts him on the same page as the ACLU, which also strongly opposes civil asset forfeiture. Two years ago it settled a class-action case out of East Texas in which "police officers routinely pulled over motorists in the vicinity of Tenaha without any legal justification, asked if they were carrying cash and, if they were, ordered them to sign over the cash to the city or face charges of money laundering or other serious crimes. Almost all of the stops involved Black and Latino drivers. None of the plaintiffs in the case were ever arrested or charged with a crime." The police seized about $3 million this way.

Cole says he has heard from some commonwealth's attorneys who think his bill would make their job harder. That seems highly unlikely—if they view their job as protecting the innocent and prosecuting the guilty. In that case, a statutory guarantee that only the guilty can have their assets seized would only reinforce their job description. If, on the other hand, prosecutors see their job as simply racking up "wins," as measured by the raw volume of money and property seized regardless of whom it came from, then Cole's bill would indeed make their jobs harder—and thank heaven for that.

Still, Cole's bill probably goes too far for some who think civil asset forfeiture is an unalloyed good. So how about a different reform based on the same principle as the practice they defend? In cases where a citizen can show that his money or property was improperly seized, the courts shall return it to him—along with an equivalent sum from the personal property of every individual responsible for the seizure.

That still wouldn't balance the scales: Unlike the police, the citizen would have to prove something. But you gotta start somewhere, right?

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52 responses to “How Asset Forfeiture Allows Cops to Steal from Citizens

  1. One of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time. It’s a blatantly unconstitutional practice, violating fundamental rights like due process and prohibitions against uncompensated takings, but, by all means, waive it on through.

    1. There’s so many, I have a hard time picking just one Supreme Court decision as the worst.

      1. Among the worst is as far as I’ll go.

        1. Fair enough.

    2. I’d say it’s a tie between this and one of the sweeping expansions of the Commerce Clause

      1. I find a lot of decisions that are worse than the commerce clause decisions from a purely legal logic view, but in terms of the effects on our lives I think the commerce clause decisions are by far the worst.

    3. IIRC, it was a 5 – 4 split, wasn’t it?

      1. Law is law. Does it matter how many applaud as they screw us?

        1. Definitely.

          But my point was more that the SCOTUS might easily reverse at a later date.

          1. What, and betray the holy doctrine of stare decisis?

      2. These split decisions offend me.

        First, if unanimity is required for a criminal conviction, shouldn’t it be required for crimial appeals?

        Second, if a law is so unclear that appeals judges, and especially the Supremes, can’t agree on what a law means, then that law ought to be voided as unconstitutional.

    4. Not even in the top ten.

  2. Cole says he has heard from some commonwealth’s attorneys who think his bill would make their job harder.

    Between private property ownership and convenience for state agents, you don’t make laws for the latter at expense of the former.

    1. You have to admit, the BOR is damned inconvenient for cops and prosecutors.

  3. “police officers routinely pulled over motorists in the vicinity of Tenaha without any legal justification, asked if they were carrying cash and, if they were, ordered them to sign over the cash to the city or face charges of money laundering or other serious crimes. Almost all of the stops involved Black and Latino drivers. None of the plaintiffs in the case were ever arrested or charged with a crime.”

    Ordinarily, we would call this extortion.

    1. Can we revive the practice of hanging highway men by the side of the road as a warning to others?

      1. I was a highwayman, but the bastards hung me in the spring of 25′.

        1. I love that song, Johnny Cash was the only person who could sing a country song about flying starships across the universe.

          1. I’m educating my wife in country music now. She is not aware that prior to Florida-Georgia line country was good.

            1. Does that statement presume Florida-Georgia Line is good itself?

              1. No I’m say new country sucks, it’s just pop with twang

                1. Yup.

                2. I liked it when it was country people making music, now it’s people trying to make ‘country music’

      2. yes. yes, you can

    2. Working. Class. Heroes. Every one of them.

    3. Or, quite literally, highway robbery.

  4. This is nothing less than gangsterism, with the full force of the government behind it. I used to think the Sheriff of Nottingham was a clumsy, outlandish caricaturization. Now I know it’s just the essence of government, and the people drawn to the power it represents, laid bare.

    Robin Hood did not steal from the rich and give to the poor. He stole from the tax man and the government, and returned that money to its rightful owners.

    1. “The trick is to stop thinking of it as ‘your’ money.” – IRS auditor

      1. THE + IRS = THEIRS

  5. Requiring a conviction might be going too far? No way. Civil asset forfeiture is practically speaking no different from a fine, and how can you levee a fine without a conviction?

    1. It is not equivalent to a fine. The penalties for most offences are defined under the law.

      CAF allows for penalties that are essentially unlimited.

      Just imagine a Attorney General in an Elizabeth Warren administration deciding that the Koch brothers were criminals….

      1. I didn’t say it was equivalent, just that practically speaking it is the same. Certainly the fact that they are unlimited by law is yet another reason they must go.

    2. how can you levee a fine without a conviction?

      Run it through the IRS.

  6. Can we revive the practice of hanging highway men by the side of the road as a warning to others?

    Bring back the gibbet.

    1. Don’t give the State ideas, dammit.

  7. What, pigs take advantage of a law for their own gain?

    Shocked, I am.

  8. What? And allow these criminals to have money to defend themselves with? Can’t allow that! They’re guilty! Cops don’t arrest innocent people! With a good lawyer they may be able to get themselves acquitted! We must take all their assets away from them and stick them with a public pretender! Then we can railroad them into a plea bargain! Justice!

  9. “Cole supports “traditional family values” ? so much so that he voted against appointing a Richmond prosecutor and former Navy pilot to a judgeship because he was gay.”

    OK, to be fair, the objection was to the guy’s “gay-rights” activism, which isn’t strictly the same thing as being gay. Not that this will have much weight here, but there *is* a distinction. I mean, if they turned down a candidate for being a feminist activist, would that be the same as rejecting her for being a woman?

    http://news.fredericksburg.com…..l-nominee/

    1. Laying that aside, I object to this formulation:

      “You can’t get much more conservative than Cole…But policing for profit has gone too far, even for Cole.”

      The idea is that, well, we *expect* progressives to be against asset forfeiture, but now *even a conservative* is against it!

      As if the ACLU represents *all* progressives on this issue. If progs are more civil libertarian on the issue than conservatives, we should expect the laws to be fairer in blue states, no? Is there evidence of this?

      Maybe Cole is one of those conservatives who wants to *conserve* constitutional rights, instead of twisting them into pretzel shapes.

    2. I strongly suspected that was the case, but wasn’t sure. That being said, I don’t really find any of his listed actions here questionable.

      1. Opposing someone’s identity politics /= rejecting their identity.

        Equating the two is how we get charges of “racism, sexism and homophobia” thrown at people who disagree (rightly or wrongly, but honestly) with some identity-politics activist.

        1. True, but the claims in the article were more than that.

          He shrunk the welfare state, he ended state funding for abortion( I would assuming even the people on H&R who are pro abortion would be against the state funding it), and he wrote a law to allow private businesses to set the rules on their property. What about any of those am I supposed to find objectionable?

          1. Those are the symptoms of a SoCon, you see.

  10. Asset forfeiture is cops stealing from people. How does that require a whole article?

    1. Because, for many ‘citizens’, anyone accused of a crime by the cops is not a ‘person’, they are a ‘criminal.’

      Further, those same ‘citizens’ equate ‘cop’ and ‘hero’ and believe that a cop can do no wrong.

  11. When a nation which tolerates asset forfeiture every single commoner who is not member of the law enforcement establishment, one of the elite political classes or simply lacks connections to one or the other then that commoner is already a convicted criminal whether they’ve been involved in any type of crime or not. It’s all just a matter of whether they’ve had their turn to be shaken down and robbed yet.

  12. How is asset forfeiture any different than some asshole noble demanding the right of ‘prima nocta’ except maybe, that in addition to fucking your wife, he bends you over a box, and denies you the common courtesy of a reach around?

  13. Then there are these bastards, http://dailysignal.com/2014/10…..-telling/?
    utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social

  14. conservative than Cole, a Republican who represents

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