Civil Asset Forfeiture: When Law Enforcement Agencies Become Highway Robbers

By Eric Anton, National Committee Member

There is a general perception in the United States that the law enforcement community exists to protect and serve the general population. Indeed, this reputation is largely deserved; I contrast this with the experiences of many in other countries where the police are largely seen as dishonorable pests to deal with. In my time in Afghanistan, a large number of the locals I interacted with saw the police as being in the same category as locusts or any other natural disaster that could never be avoided, but only endured. Sadly, many of our fellow citizens find their interactions with the police to be fraught with peril, violence, and outright oppression, and thus view law enforcement in much the same way as the Afghans do. The causes of their negative experiences are myriad and vexing, but at least one of these outrages can be traced to greed; its corrupting influence is a pestilence which threatens many of the basic provisions of justice that most of us take for granted in this nation.

Here I am speaking of “civil asset forfeiture,” which is a legal tool by which the law enforcement community can seize property that they allege to have been involved in a certain criminal activity. This property can include everything from cash, to cars, to real estate. Law enforcement may employ this process without charging the property owner with a crime, because they are bringing the charges of criminal wrongdoing against the property itself, rather than against its owner. The legal test in such cases is generally “the preponderance of evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and there is a presumption of guilt rather than of innocence. Thus, the property owner must prove innocence to contest the seizure after the fact, while the state does not need to prove guilt prior to seizing the assets. In consequence, the stories of completely innocent persons having their property seized and being driven into grinding poverty without so much as a criminal charge, let alone a criminal conviction, have grown too numerous to count.

Now, imagine this: you are a young black male driving at night and you get pulled over by the cops. You’re concerned because you have a criminal record for some minor crimes in the past, but you’ve turned your life around. In fact, you are now a small business owner; you’ve just closed up for the night and are on your way home. Without warning, the cops take you out of your car, handcuff you, and detain you without reading you your rights or telling you what was wrong. They search your car and find the day’s take from your restaurant: over seventeen thousand dollars. After two hours of this abuse, you’re released, but your car has been impounded and the cash that you were going to use to buy supplies and equipment for your business has been confiscated. You have not been charged with a crime. This actually happened to a man named Mandrel Stuart in 2014, and his is not the only example out there. Civil asset forfeiture is a distressingly common occurrence during traffic stops and is tainted with the stench of racial profiling. Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult for people to get their property back, especially for racial minorities, who are already looked upon with suspicion by the justice system. In many cases, law enforcement has pressured property owners to renounce ownership of their property in order to avoid facing criminal charges, as happened to Javier Gonzalez, whom Texas police threatened in 2008 with a money laundering charge if he didn’t give them a briefcase of ten thousand dollars in cash that he was carrying.

So, why do the police do this? In most states, the police are allowed to keep the assets and use them to fund their own departments, or can get around state restrictions on this practice by teaming up with federal agencies through the “equitable sharing” system, in which the federal and local agencies divide the spoils amongst themselves. It can reasonably be surmised that greed has infected the whole process and that some police departments have taken on the role of brigands who steal from the poor and racial minorities—people without the political or economic power to challenge these outrages. A recent report in South Carolina found that black males represent thirteen percent of the population, yet accounted for sixty-five percent of those whose assets were confiscated. This same report found that fifty-five percent of the seizures that involved cash were of amounts less than a thousand dollars. In other words, the police in South Carolina are focusing their brigandage on those who do not have the means to fight back.

The American Solidarity Party should become an advocate to help the poor and disenfranchised by overturning this monumentally unjust practice. We champion the rights of the poor, minorities, and those who face oppression from our criminal justice system. Ending civil asset forfeiture should be a key component in our drive to reform the system and to correct the historic injustices inflicted on the most vulnerable people in our society.

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