Asset Forfeiture

Alabama Police Use Asset Forfeiture to Ruin an Innocent Small Business Owner

"The police just fucked my life."

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Shane T. Mccoy/ZUMA Press/Newscom

A news report from Alabama offers two textbook cases of how sweeping powers of civil asset forfeiture allow police to seize people's property with near impunity.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can take property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime. Law enforcement and prosecutors say the practice is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting ill-gotten gains. But in state after state, horror stories have emerged of regular people having their possessions expropriated and their lives turned upside down.

In the Alabama case, around 20 heavily armed officers raided Frank Ranelli's computer repair shop in Ensley in 2010, on a tip that Ranelli was selling stolen goods. Police seized roughly 130 computers from the shop, most of them belonging to customers.

The Alabama news outlet Al.com reports what happened next:

Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after Ranelli demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally.

Yet none of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.

"Here I was, a man, owned this business, been coming to work every day like a good old guy for 23 years, and I show up at work that morning—I was in here doing my books from the day before—and the police just f***ed my life," he said.

Ranelli has been fighting ever since to get his property back. But at least he got to keep his house. The same story documents the case of Cherie Marceaux, whose boyfriend was arrested in 2005 for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer. A subsequent search of their house turned up more pot. Marceaux pled guilty to possession and received probation, but police weren't done with her:

"They broke into my house and took my horse trailer and didn't give it back," Marceaux said.

"They stole my daughter's—at the time she was just a little girl maybe six, seven years old—they stole her money that she had in the top drawer of her dresser in a piggy bank, $70….They took $4,000 I had been saving."

And they seized the house she owned and the more than 25 acres of land it sits on, none of which was ever returned, nor was her money or other items. Marceaux lost her home and thousands of dollars, all without being convicted of anything more serious than marijuana possession.

These stories are not unusual. I reported on one case last year where sheriff's deputies in Hinds County, Mississippi, stripped the furniture from a woman's apartment, including paintings and lamps, because her boyfriend was a suspected drug dealer. After a multi-year legal battle, the Hinds County prosecutors agreed to return all of the furniture except for one white couch, which presumably occupies a county municipal office today.

In Chicago, asset forfeiture data revealed that roughly 11,000 cash seizures over a five-year period were for amounts lower than $1,000. Nearly 1,500 were for amounts under $100.

In response to the alarming number of stories like these, more than 20 states have passed asset forfeiture reform laws. Illinois enacted laws strengthening protections for property owners this summer, and earlier this year the Mississippi legislature passed new reporting and transparency requirements for state and local police.

But state and local police can still go through the federal courts and the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue asset forfeiture cases, a loophole that allows them to bypass stricter state laws. Marceaux's case, for instance, was funneled through federal court. In these cases law enforcement agencies typically keep 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds; the other 20 percent goes into the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Fund.

As part of President Donald Trump's directive to reduce violent crime and drug trafficking, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era directive this July that limited so-called "adoptions" of local forfeiture cases by federal law enforcement.

Alabama police received more than $2.2 million in asset forfeiture payouts from the Justice Department's equitable sharing fund in 2016. That's a drop from 2014, when they collected $4.9 million.

On Tuesday, Sessions—a staunch supporter of asset forfeiture—announced he was ordering the Justice Department to hire a "director of asset forfeiture accountability," noting the department's forfeiture program "has received certain criticisms."

"The American people and Congress must know this program is being administered professionally, lawfully and in a manner consistent with sound public policy," Sessions wrote.

But the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, said in a statement that Sessions had merely "appointed the fox to guard the henhouse."

"No amount of government bureaucracy can substitute for basic respect for Americans' constitutional rights," Institute for Justice attorney Robert Everett Johnson said.

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  1. This is real news and real injustice. It deserves almost as much hysteria as police shooting unarmed citizens.

    1. If the media gave this the same level of attention they would have to acknowledge that property rights are a thing worth caring about. And then where would we be? Someone might get compensated for not being allowed to build on a wetland or something.

      1. Good point. I think the media are, either willingly or by product of brainwashing, simply tools of the Marxist agenda in America so you may be onto something there.

    2. Getting killed is better than losing all your stuff. Got it

      1. I trust reading comprehension was not your strong suit.

  2. On Tuesday, Sessions?a staunch supporter of asset forfeiture?announced he was ordering the Justice Department to hire a “director of asset forfeiture accountability,” noting the department’s forfeiture program “has received certain criticisms.”

    “The American people and Congress must know this program is being administered professionally, lawfully and in a manner consistent with sound public policy,” Sessions wrote.

    It’s only been like 30 years that we’ve been complaining about asset forfeiture. They’re really on top of this shit.

    1. I’m sure this new director of accountability will look around and tell us that everything’s going fine.

      1. That is after taking his pick of loot.

      2. You’re right, the new director will quickly figure out that his job is to explain why every single asset forfeiture case is totally justified.
        Sort of like with police shootings. Those computers were acting belligerent and who knows, might have had a weapon on them. You can’t expect cops to risk their lives, now, can you?

        1. Computers have viruses, you know. Do you want our Heroes In Blue to catch a virus?

    2. “It’s only been like 30 years that we’ve been complaining about asset forfeiture.”

      Like ripples in a swamp, so are the days of our lives.

  3. My brother lost his bike much the same way, dropped it off at a repair shop to have some work done on it and the shop got raided for stolen parts, his bike got taken as “evidence” and 18 months later when he finally got his bike back found out the cops had taken all the bikes to an impound lot where they were stuck outside uncovered in the yard. His bike they had already torn down the motor on so after sitting out in the weather for 18 months it was scrap iron. It was an older 750, not worth more than a couple thousand so it wasn’t worth hiring a lawyer and going after the cops and the one lawyer he did talk to just laughed and told him he was fucked. Assholes.

    1. But if we didn’t have the cops to protect us, your brother’s bike might have been stolen….

  4. I’m not sure how anyone could look at this practice and think that it’s even remotely constitutional let alone conscionable. Sessions is clearly a ‘conservative’ in the same way that HRC is a ‘classical liberal’.

    1. There is no such thing as a conservative or democrat. There are neo-con mega state actors and there are progressive mega-state actors( they are the exact same thing). They are wrestlers putting on a show.
      What’s makes them all so vile and evil is that they do this horrible stuff under the auspices of public safety or god or the most dangerous thing on earth – “public opinion”

    2. They assume the police are never, or very very rarely, wrong. Once you’ve got in your head that only bad people’s stuff is getting taken, it starts to become a lot easier to ignore all the due process concerns.

      1. It should never, ever become a lot easier to ignore all the due process concerns but I think you’re probably right when it comes to most people who have never had a direct interaction with the police beyond the occasional traffic ticket.

  5. I still cannot find, for some reason, a case where the object or its owner used the fourth amendment as a defense.
    Anybody found an actual supreme court ruling that this madness is actually constitutional?
    Lots of cases where there turned out to be a conviction somewhere, or the asset was returned because of some other monkeyshines like an illegal search, but no clear cut ruling based on the poor old fourth amendment.

    And oh, by the way, when the case is US .vs ‘about $347,000.00 cash’, who exactly represents the cash in court?

    1. “The people vs. FYTW!”

      1. Apparently there’s a “long line” of cases. This is the most relevant and recent example I could find (IANAL):

        Astol CALERO-TOLEDO, Superintendent of Police, et al., Appellants, v. PEARSON YACHT LEASING CO.

      2. Mulitple comments because squirrels

        “(Cops) next argue that the District Court erred in holding that the forfeiture statutes unconstitutionally authorized the taking for government use of innocent parties’ property without just compensation. They urge that a long line of prior decisions of this Court establish the principle that statutory forfeiture schemes are not rendered unconstitutional because of their applicability to the property interests of innocents…The historical background of forfeiture statutes in this country and this Court’s prior decisions sustaining their constitutionality lead to that conclusion.”

        Justice Douglas, an FDR appointee, is the only one with a conscience

        “If the yacht had been notoriously used in smuggling drugs, those who claim forfeiture might have equity on their side. But no such showing was made; and so far as we know only one marihuana cigarette was found on the yacht. We deal here with trivia where harsh judge-made law should be tempered with justice. I realize that the ancient law is founded on the fiction that the inanimate object itself is guilty of wrongdoing…But that traditional forfeiture doctrine cannot at times be reconciled with the requirements of the Fifth Amendment…Such a case is the present one.”

  6. “…and the police just f***ed my life,” he said.

    Yeah, they’ll do that.

  7. Government Governments, Innocent Business Owner Gets Governmented; Film at 11

  8. Fuck the police!

  9. On Tuesday, Sessions?a staunch supporter of asset forfeiture?announced he was ordering the Justice Department to hire a “director of asset forfeiture accountability,” noting the department’s forfeiture program “has received certain criticisms.”

    ” I am going to organize a special, blue-ribbon, fact-finding commission, made up of myself and… Miss Betty Childs. We will get to the bottom of this dastardly deed.”

  10. Sgt. John Carr, a Homewood Police spokesman, said Wednesday that the department “really can’t comment on any of that stuff in regards to the property because it’s tied up in a civil lawsuit right now.”

    “Any of that stuff.” Crackerjack spokesman. I’m sure if the property owners dropped any litigation we’d be hearing nothing but the whole truth from “law enforcement”.

    1. tied up in a civil lawsuit right now.

      “Yeah, a bunch of dumbass civilians think they can get their stuff back, but we’ll see. We’ll see.”

      1. It says it’s tied up in a civil lawsuit right now. Blank stare.

  11. “But state and local police can still go through the federal courts …”

    I done told y’all about the dangers of rejecting federalism, but does anyone ever listen to ol Mitsima? F*ck no.

  12. Make every dollar seized via asset forfeiture go to a fund for the local office of public defenders.

    Shit will stop immediately.

  13. The bright lining in all of this egregious dismissal of due process and the Constitution is that the hordes of good cops who roam our streets not only refuse to participate in asset forfeiture, they openly oppose the practice.

    Thank God for all those good cops.

    They will save the Constitution.

    Now get back to being pissed off at football players, you fucking stooges.

  14. How did this apparent violation of the Constitution ever get started? Has it been ok’d by the Supreme Court?

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