Civil Asset Forfeiture

Self-Funding Cops and Prosecutors, a.k.a. Armed Robbers

An ACLU lawsuit highlights the corrupting effect of civil forfeiture.


APAAC training slide

According to the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council (APAAC), "an asset forfeiture practice that supplements other law enforcement activities provides an opportunity that is unique among governmental agencies—the direct augmentation of the agency's budget through the performance of its designated function." It's understandable that cops and prosecutors would be excited about this opportunity to beef up their budgets by taking people's stuff. But as the ACLU of Arizona emphasizes in the lawsuit it filed last week on behalf of a woman whose pickup truck was swiped by the Pinal County Sheriff's Department, giving law enforcement agencies a direct financial stake in forfeitures creates perverse incentives that undermine performance of their designated functions by encouraging them to target people based on their seizable assets rather than the threat they pose.

APAAC itself acknowledges the corrupting potential of civil forfeiture in a training slide titled "Don't Ruin Forfeiture for All of Us" that copies the form of ads for DirecTV:

• When your bosses can't find any money in their budget they get depressed.

• When they get depressed they tell you to start doing forfeiture cases.

• When you start doing forfeiture cases you go to a Forfeitures seminar.

• When you go to a Forfeitures seminar you feel like a winner.

• When you feel like a winner you go back to your jurisdiction and just start seizing everything in sight.

• When you just start seizing everything in sight you screw things up and lose everything.

• When you screw things up and lose everything you ruin forfeitures for all of us.

• Don't ruin forfeitures for all of us. Get the purpose of this seminar and follow an educated, ethical and professional forfeiture practice.

It's not completely clear what counts as screwing things up in APAAC's book. The examples it cites include a police chief and five officers in Romulus, Michigan, who "allegedly spent more than $100,000 in forfeited drug money to buy booze, marijuana, prostitutes, lavish trips and a tanning salon for the ex-chief's wife." I assume APAAC also would frown on using forfeiture money to pay off student loans or living rent free in a seized house for five years while using public money to cover the utilities, as two Oklahoma prosecutors recently were caught doing. But what about the home security system that Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles (the lead defendant in the ACLU suit) bought with forfeiture money, or his forfeiture-funded donations to local sports leagues and other community organizations, which may attract favorable publicity and generate good will but have little to do with the designated function of the county prosecutor's office?

The use of forfeiture money for purposes more directly related to law enforcement is troubling too, especially given how dependent agencies have become on seizures to pay for personnel costs and equipment. "When the economy tanked and we lost a good part of our budget," Chris Radtke, chief of the administrative bureau at the Pima County Sheriff's Department, told a Tucson TV station in 2013, "we could absolutely not survive without [forfeiture money]." In response to a 2013 APAAC inquiry, Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer reported: "All of my [forfeiture] funds are used to supplement the salaries of my employees and office operating expenses. This use of my [forfeiture] funds has become necessary to avoid furloughs and/or layoffs as the county has cut back on staffing due to budget cuts." The ACLU, which collected those quotes, also notes that the Arizona Department of Public Safety's bomb squad, SWAT team, and hazardous materials unit seem to be entirely dependent on forfeiture funds.

The problem here is twofold. To the extent that law enforcement agencies fund themselves, they are less accountable to legislators and other overseers. And to the extent that forfeiture money pays for legitimate and necessary law enforcement expenses, agencies are always looking for assets to seize. In fact, taking them at their word, their very existence may depend on legalized theft.

NEXT: A Bogus Warrant, a Burned Baby, and an Immoral War

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  1. I liked things better in the old days. You used to be able to shoot highway men with no consequences.

    1. At least in places like Afghanistan where local tribes control a section of road they don’t steal your whole cargo. They just charge a tariff based on the value of the stuff you are transporting through their territory.

      Sure, it is a protection racket. But at least it is an honest and sustainable protection racket. Stealing everything you can get your hands on really shouldn’t prove to be sustainable. I suppose they have managed to keep it rolling this long by only targeting people who are at the margins and can’t fight back and won’t engender a feeling of “this could happen to us” in the majority of citizens.

      Most of the early stories (from 15+ years ago) were about migrant workers or people traveling through podunk towns in southern Louisiana. Now it is starting to be everyone and everywhere. The house of cards should come crashing down fairly soon.

      1. I hope so,but don’t think so,Cyto.

  2. “The agency holding seized property must pay 365% annual interest, compounded daily, on any property it holds until said property is returned or the owner is compensated the fair market value, plus interest plus the opportunity cost of not having the property due to seizure.”

    /I wish

    1. I wish the SCOTUS would take one of these cases and easily make a 9-0 decision that this is a huge due process violation and call this shit government theft.

      Of course we’d probably end up with some ass-raping Kelo-like decision.

      1. I wish that since I’m forced to pay taxes that at least it could be used to fund things like the local police station, the fire dept and if there’s anything left after that, the roadz.

        1. Your taxes only pay for their lavish retirement plans.

      2. If the SCOTUS won’t do the right thing then we should start agitating for a constitutional amendment.

        1. I can even suggest the language of the proposed amendment:

          The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, vehicles, houses, papers, and effects, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Nor shall the people be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

          That’s far too radical to get through the courts, and too convoluted for the legislature to understand. Not that lack of understanding precludes a vote for or aginst.

  3. It’s not completely clear what counts as screwing things up in APAAC’s book.

    I’d say the sudden national attention (limited in scope as it may be) is what they’re talking about. You don’t want your accomplice banging pots on the lawn of the house you’re burglarizing.

    1. Yep, it’s not using their ill gotten gains for hookers and blow, it’s getting caught they are worried about.

      1. You beat me to it.

  4. Why is having fewer cops on the beat due to budget cuts a bad thing? Or missing a swat team? Bad?

    1. Precisely.

      Ever notice how when something happens in Any-Town USA that might require a peace officer, in about 30 seconds, there are 28 squad cars, from 9 different “agencies”?.all parked zig-zagged all over the place, blue lights blazing, and 650 uniformed “officers” milling about doing absolutely nothing?

      Aside from it being humorous, it’s dangerous to our being reasonably free people.

      1. This x 1000.

        A whileback two .22 cal cartridges were found in the high school in Kittery Maine.
        So of course there was a shit storm of evacuation and lockdown, all because, presumably, some kid forgot to completely empty his pockets after plinking and wisely tossed the bullets than get caught.

        According to the paper, 5 different agencies, including a conservation officer responded to the lockdown.

      2. I see you’ve been to Henderson NV.

        Their complete disregard for traffic flow and willingness to completely shut down neighborhoods, roads, city blocks, apartment towers, schools, strip malls, etc. for nearly anything is there way of reminding us that they really are more important than us and what they’re doing is more important than anything we could be doing.

        1. That’s not peculiar to Henderson. It’s certainly the case here in NYC. The shutting down of a block or two can last more than a day. But even on a smaller scale, police are gregarious; if one car stops, it’s very soon several, matching AlgerHiss’s description, including the milling about or just standing around gabbing.

      3. They all want to file their reports,so it looks they are doing something besides eating donuts.

  5. The worst part of this whole thing is that basically every single cop doesn’t see it as a problem. It’s a blatantly obvious end run around constitutional property rights yet nobody but civil rights advocates are crying foul. This just show how little the law enforcement culture cares about doing the right thing.

  6. Asset forfeiture has been around since colonial times.

    1. Citation?

      What we are talking about civil asset forfeiture wherein the government can take property from a person without due process under color of the property being involved in a crime, while the person who owns the property isn’t even necessarily arrested, much less convicted, of a crime. This primarily started in the 1980s.

      If you are talking about eminent domain, that has existed but always requires just compensation to the person.

      1. It’s actually older than the colonies in English law. Reason had an article explaining “deodand” (in rem proceedings) ~25 yrs. ago.

        And I’m sure with a little imagination you can think of cases where it’s justifiable for public safety. For example, someone abandons a bldg. in all but title, has no $ to fix it, the ruins become a nuisance, and the municipality proceeds to have it forfeited to put it into a less noxious condition. Or someone steals & totally wrecks a car, it’s blocking an intersection, has to be towed away, the owner is away & doesn’t have theft insurance anyway, so the municipality junks it to pay the towing fee.

  7. Dream On ? :

    “In your dreams, the cops and the courts are not a scam”

    “In your dreams, the FBI is not a scam”

    “In your dreams, the Constitution was not a scam”,

    “In your dreams, the Bill of rights was not a scam”,

    “In your dreams, the Supreme Court was not a scam”…..

    See : “Dreams[ Anarchist Blues]”:

    Regards, onebornfree.
    The Freedom Network:

  8. If the police think that they can use the proceeds from their activities to feather their nests, then I think it would only be fair to impose the costs of their misbehavior on them directly. I would propose that any fines or judgements imposed on the police (and maybe even all the legal costs of their defense) as a result of their official misbehavior should come out of the pension funds of the entire police unit where the misbehavior occurred. The citizenry should not have to pay for the misbehavior of its employees ? the miscreants should be responsible. After all, that is what the police do when they catch criminals or people they think might possibly be criminals.

    Maybe some peer pressure from retired cops who see their pensions drop will induce a sense of responsibility in the cops on the force.

    1. Do you realistically foresee what you suggested or described actually happening. I think that my suggestion, Jury Nullification is the more likely, though I cannot say how likely it is or might be.

  9. The forces of Law and Order will have to make up their minds re a number of things. A listing of those factors that come to MY mind, at this moment follows:
    1. How far can the good will of the general population be pushed?
    2. Are the monetary benefits worth the risks run?
    3. If the patience of the public comes to be exhausted, what then?
    4. I expect that, sooner or later, one of these Theft Under Color of Law, aka Civil Asset Forfeiture cases will undergo court trial. That being the case, who knows how much loss will be suffered by legitimate law enforcement, I expect that there is some of that, maybe just a little, but some.
    5. Should it come to pass that the part of the public that sits on trial juries comes to be so annoyed with the questionable antics of some agencies/departments, that via Jury Nullification, they reach the point of finding Jack The Riper, Blood Dripping Knife and all, Not Guilty, what then, respecting the mess the the forces of Law and Order will have played a significant role in creating, all in the name of Money Grubbing?

    The sort of damage that could be done to society via the above mentioned short listing of possibilities might never be repairable, and just think on the following, should it come to that,”that” being a confrontation between civilians and cops. There are a whole lot more civilians than cops. Of course, one hopes that good sense prevails, though looking at things that transpire,one wonders.

  10. Our leaders scared us with — Gasp! — DRUGS. They promised to protect us, so we elected them. This is just one of several Constitution bending policies they enacted. But they PROMISED!

  11. What is the difference between Grand Theft, Civil Asset Forfeiture and Theft Under Color of Law, as it’s practiced today? Not a damned thing, in-so-far as the writer can see, and that Virginia is one hell of a problem.

  12. “It’s not completely clear what counts as screwing things up in APAAC’s book. The examples it cites include a police chief and five officers in Romulus, Michigan, who “allegedly spent more than $100,000 in forfeited drug money to buy booze, marijuana, prostitutes, lavish trips and a tanning salon for the ex-chief’s wife.”

    As an aside, the chief’s spending spree made the forfeiture regime functionally equivalent to the colonial-days Vice Admiralty court. Yep, “department use only” is the only fig leaf covering that naked equivalence between the Drug Warriors and Lord North.

    “But it’s totally different!! Lord North was a tyrant! The Drug War runs in a democracy and is consented to by the people!!”

    Sure, kid, sure…

  13. Asset forfeiture is a presumption of guilt prior to your individual natural right to a trial before a jury of your piers. In other words, forteiture is the outward example of a much deeper issue, your human right to have a speedy, unbiased, trial.

    Asset forfeiture is one of the reasons the revolution was fought, with genuine ire by some individuals, and with emotional rhetoric (in name only) from others. After all, the newly formed Constitutional government (rather than Articles) decided that force was needed, ref The Whiskey Rebellion.

    Because this practice was done in the past, it does not make it any more justifiable today. Because everyone else is doing or did something, is not an excuse for theft, force, abuse, etc., no matter what “law” invoked. Because an agency doesn’t have funding, this does not give them lawful action to find it by stealing from others.

    And the most corrupt, and especially those corrupt individuals who justify theft, will be most happy to have more laws passed, so they can steal and steal again, all while refusing the acknowledge their immoral culpability. As more laws pass, they’ll justify more and more theft in order to catch those “bad guys.”

    Cognitive dissonance.

  14. If you want to focus on the issue of asset forfeiture specifically, you’ll need to help undo federalized Rico, and the Patriot Act among others, so the federal government will have to actually prove their case, with presumed innocent, jury of peers, trial.

    Above, someone mentioned The Supreme Court. They have ruled, and incredible as it seems, in favor of forfeiture without trial. See…..e-2014-11, the last major ruling.

    Several RICO cases have been tried by that court also. When government is corrupt, can it really be expected that those appointed by the corrupt will appoint corruptible or corrupted judges in all courts, including SCOTUS?

  15. in order to the extent that forfeiture money pays and necessary law enforcement expenses, agencies have been looking for assets to seize and that will be solved.

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