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Something Obscene About Civil Asset Forfeitures

Memo Pad National News

Something Obscene About Civil Asset Forfeitures

Eric Holder

Imagine this:

You get pulled over by police. Maybe they claim you were seven miles over the speed limit, maybe they say you made an improper lane change. Doesn’t matter, because the traffic stop is only a pretext.

Using that pretext, they ask permission to search your car for drugs. You give permission and they search. Or you decline permission, but that doesn’t matter, either. They make you wait until a drug-sniffing canine can be brought to the scene, then tell you the dog has indicated the presence of drugs — and search anyway.

Now imagine that no drugs are turned up, but they do find a large sum of money and demand that you account for it. Maybe you’re going to a car auction out of state, maybe the money is a loan from a relative, maybe you just don’t trust banks. This is yet something else that doesn’t matter. The police insist that this is drug money. They scratch out a handwritten receipt and, without a warrant, without an arrest, maybe without even giving you a ticket for the alleged traffic violation, they drive away with your money.

You want it back? Hire a lawyer. You might be successful — in a year or two. Or you might not. Either way, it’s going to cost you and if the amount in question is too small, getting an attorney might not be practical. Would you spend $5,000 to (maybe) recover $4,000? No. So the police keep your money — your money — and you swallow the loss.

You find that scenario far-fetched? It’s not fetched nearly as far as you think.

Just since 2008, there have been over 55,000 “civil asset forfeitures” for cash and property totaling $3 billion. And for every actual drug dealer thus ensnared, there seems to be someone like Mandrel Stuart, who told the Washington Post last year that he lost his business when police seized $17,550, leaving him no operating funds. Or like Ming Tong Liu, who lost an opportunity to buy a restaurant when police took $75,000 he had raised from relatives for the purchase.

So one is heartened at last week’s announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder that the federal government is largely abandoning the practice.

The civil asset forfeiture has been a weapon in the so-called “War on Drugs” since the Nixon years. Initially conceived as a way to hit big drug cartels in the wallet, it has metastasized into a Kafkaesque nightmare for thousands of ordinary Americans. Indeed, the Post reports the seizures have more than doubled under President Obama.

Now the administration is pulling back. Not that Holder’s announcement ends the practice completely — state and local governments are free to continue it on their own. What ends, or at least is sharply curtailed, is federal involvement, i.e., a program called “equitable sharing,” under which seized property was “adopted” by the feds, meaning the case was handed off to Washington, which took 20 percent off the top, the rest going into the local treasury.

Ask your local law enforcement officials if they will be following Holder’s lead. And if not, why not? Because — and this should go without saying — in a nation with a constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures” there is something obscene about a practice that incentivizes police to, in essence, steal money from law-abiding citizens and leaves said citizens no reasonable recourse for getting it back.

Yet, this is precisely what has gone on for years without notice, much less a peep of protest, from we, the people — proving yet again that we the people will countenance great violence to our basic freedoms in the name of expedience. The insult compounding the injury? The expedience didn’t even work and has had no discernible impact on the use of illegal narcotics. To the contrary that usage has thrived under the “War on Drugs.”

Sadly, the Constitution has done less well.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Ran_dum_Thot January 21, 2015

    Let’s hope that the states follow along. These seizures are nothing more than theft. To have your property confiscated, to be subject to a search without a documented cause or warrant is ludicrous. The police cannot continue stopping people without a good, verifiable reason. Suspicion does not cut it. The cops can’t come into my house without a warrant, so why are my car or my pockets not protected? Folks, a dog’s nose is far from infallible; carrying cash is not against the law; suspicious behavior is not against the law. Putting people behind bars for non-violent crimes is ridiculous. Incarceration doesn’t fix anything or anybody. It would be better, and more cost effective to have the low level wrong doer back in the work force and back with his/her family. Think probation, public service, counseling. All are cheaper and more effective than a prison cell.

    1. dana becker January 22, 2015

      But they don’t care about any of that. They rationalize it so everything is honky dory being thieves.

      1. Ran_dum_Thot January 23, 2015

        This is when voters and taxpayers step up to the line. If cops wonder why their public image is tarnished, they need to review how they act. Maybe its time for police departments to go back to serve and protect. Stealing, shooting people, creating life threatening situations is not part of their job. I’d rather a cop walk away to defuse a situation. Of course, this means that the average citizen will have to take responsibility for condoning wrong doing by others if they don’t want the police acting like they do.

  2. johninPCFL January 21, 2015

    The original laws were often used to bolster police budgets. Here’s an example from the 1990’s: “An Orlando Sentinel investigation showed that a special drug team established by Mr. Vogel had been targeting mostly minority motorists for stops and searches on Interstate 95.
    What’s more, deputies on the squad seized millions of dollars in cash from motorists without making arrests and when there was no evidence of a crime.”

    The police were given the OK (and likely the requirement) to rob motorists that were travelling from Miami.

  3. Allan Richardson January 21, 2015

    Any judge who was not BOUGHT AND PAID FOR (with money stolen from law abiding citizens) would know INSTANTLY that this practice VIOLATES both the FIFTH and the FOURTEENTH Amendments to the Constitution.

    Alas, I am afraid that IF any group took the entire practice (not just a specific case) to court, and IF it got to the Supremes, our current RIGGED SCOTUS would, 5 to 4, find some sophistry with which to approve it.

  4. Five Guyz January 29, 2015

    More insight into the illness and disease imported by illegal aliens: http://tinyurl.com/ljgchdg


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