Quotulatiousness

June 18, 2017

Meet the Texas Lawmaker Fighting Trump on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 7 Jun 2017

Konni Burton has emerged as the state’s fiercest opponent of civil asset forfeiture.

When the White House hosted a meeting of sheriffs from across the country last February, President Donald Trump joked about destroying the career of a Texas state senator who supported reforms to civil asset forfeiture laws — a controversial practice where police can seize cash and property of people suspected — but in most cases never convicted or charged with a crime.

Though Trump’s comments were meant to support police, they’ve had the opposite of their intended impact — it’s re-energized the push for reform.

Texas state senator Konni Burton was one of many local lawmakers outraged by Trump’s comments. She’s a tea party leader from the Dallas-Fort Worth area who also happens to be pro-life and pro-borders. Burton isn’t the unnamed state senator Trump offered to destroy, but she’s emerged as the state’s fiercest opponent of civil asset forfeiture.

“When you give law enforcement the ability to take your property without a conviction that’s big government,” Burton says.

Last December, Burton filed legislation that would repeal civil asset forfeiture in the state and replace it with criminal asset forfeiture.

“Police can still seize property that they think has been involved in a crime,” says Burton, “but for them to keep it … you have to be convicted of a crime.”

Texas has tried for years to reform civil asset forfeiture laws after horror stories began to emerge about the practice.

One of the most horrifying cases occurred in 2005, when cops seized $10,000 from Javier Gonzales who was driving from Austin to the border town of Brownsville to make funeral arrangements for his dying aunt. The cops didn’t find any drugs or contraband in his car, but they pressured Gonzales to sign away his rights to the cash under the threat of a felony money laundering charge.

Gonzales took the case to court and eventually won his money back in April of 2008.

And in 2012 the ACLU settled a class action lawsuit against the city of Tenaha where cops illegally seized nearly $3 million from traffic stops involving mostly Black and Latino drivers. Victims were told that they could either sign their cash over to the city or go to jail.

Cases like this have earned Texas a D+ from the Institute for Justice for forfeiture laws. Data from the libertarian legal organization shows that the state takes in an average of $41.6 million dollars a year to local law enforcement agencies as a result of these seizures.

Burton’s bill has bipartisan support, but it faces an uphill battle in the Texas legislature where it’s faced opposition from “tough on crime” lawmakers and law enforcement agencies. Burton says her legislation isn’t about stopping police from doing their job, but protecting the property rights of all Texans.

“Everybody is ready for this to be reformed,” Burton says. “You know it’s just upside down and antithetical to what our country should stand for.”

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Paul Detrick, Austin Bragg, and Meredith Bragg. Music by the Unicorn Heads.

April 5, 2017

Reining in legalized theft

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:48

Jacob Sullum on the efforts to clamp down on civil asset forfeiture abuse, which is another instance of the process being the punishment for too many innocent people:

During a meeting with county sheriffs in February, Donald Trump was puzzled by criticism of civil asset forfeiture, which all the cops in the room viewed as an indispensable and unobjectionable law enforcement tool. “Do you even understand the other side of it?” the president asked. “No,” one sheriff said, and that was that.

Trump might get a more helpful answer if he asked Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who last week reintroduced a bill aimed at curtailing civil forfeiture abuses. As Sensenbrenner observed, “These abuses threaten citizens’ Constitutional rights, put unnecessary burdens on innocent Americans, and weaken our faith in law enforcement.”

Civil forfeiture lets the government confiscate property allegedly linked to crime without bringing charges against the owner. Since law enforcement agencies receive most or all of the proceeds from the forfeitures they initiate, they have a strong financial incentive to loot first and ask questions never, which explains why those sheriffs were not eager to enlighten the president about the downside of such legalized theft.

A new report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General highlights the potential for abuse. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, the OIG found that the Drug Enforcement Administration took $4.2 billion in cash, more than 80 percent of it through administrative forfeitures, meaning there was no judicial oversight because the owners did not challenge the seizures in court.

Although the DEA would argue that the lack of challenges proves the owners were guilty, that is not true. The process for recovering seized property is daunting, complicated, time-consuming and expensive, often costing more than the property is worth.

February 27, 2015

Virginia’s asset forfeiture rules about to change for the better

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Techdirt‘s Tim Cushing reports on a hopeful sign from Virginia:

The Institute for Justice’s 2010 report “Policing for Profit” [PDF] listed Virginia as one of the worst five states in the nation in terms of forfeiture abuse. Pushing the state towards its Bottom Five finish was this perverted incentive: 100% of the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture were retained by the law enforcement agency performing the seizure. And, like a majority of states, Virginia also perverted the justice system, deeming the property “guilty” and transferring the burden of proof to those whose assets were seized.

Now that civil asset forfeiture has gone mainstream, receiving coverage from major press outlets, legislators are having a harder time ignoring opponents of these “legalized theft” programs. In response, Virginia’s lawmakers are trying to drag the state out of its forfeiture morass.

    Last week the Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a bill that would effectively raise the burden of proof for civil forfeitures by forcing the government to return seized property unless it can obtain a criminal conviction. The bill, introduced by Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania) and Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), passed by a vote of 92 to 6 and is now being considered by the state Senate.

This fixes one major issue with many civil asset forfeiture programs. Virginia’s laws only demanded a “preponderance of the evidence,” something that sounds like a lot but in reality is far lower than establishing guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the latter edges towards a theoretical 75% assurance of guilt, the percentage for asset forfeiture approaches a coin flip: 51%. Now, there needs to be a conviction before the agency can keep the seized property.

January 19, 2015

US government to end seized-asset sharing with local police

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the Washington Post, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich report on a very hopeful move by the federal government to end one of the programs that has fuelled police civil forfeiture efforts:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. It allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement.

Holder’s decision allows limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

H/T to Reason‘s Scott Shackford:

Big, huge news on the civil asset forfeiture front: Eric Holder is ordering an end to most of the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program. This is the program where the DOJ works with local law enforcement agencies for busts, and then the law enforcement agencies are permitted to keep 80 percent of the assets seized. It has been an incubator of the worst police abuses, as some agencies looked for any possible reason to take people’s property without ever actually accusing them with a crime.

Robby Soave says “Attorney General Eric Holder just made the best call of his political career” and lists just a few of the cases Reason has publicized over the years.

November 6, 2014

Asset forfeiture again

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

In the Washington Post last month, David Post discussed the issue of asset forfeiture:

The heat is slowly turning up on the government’s use of civil asset forfeiture procedures to extort money out of innocent individuals without the messy need to actually show that they did anything wrong or wrongful. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, and today’s New York Times has a front page article detailing another wrinkle in the civil forfeiture scam: seizures of funds deposited in violation of the “anti-structuring” provisions of the federal code.

As you probably know, banks have an obligation to report all cash transactions of more than $10,000 to the federal government. What you may not know is that it is a federal crime to “structure a transaction,” including by “breaking down a single sum of currency exceeding $ 10,000 into smaller sums, … “for the purpose of evading the [reporting] requirement.” The reporting requirement itself is designed to alert the government to possibly suspicious transactions involving proceeds from money laundering, or drugs or gambling or other cash-intensive activities. But the statute makes the evasion itself a crime — even if the money was derived from perfectly lawful activities, and even if the “purpose of evading the reporting requirement” is a perfectly benign one. And to make matters much worse, the IRS doesn’t even have to charge you with the crime of “structuring” in order to seize the proceeds of the transaction under civil asset forfeiture laws, and the Times article details growing use of this procedure to take and keep money belonging to innocent individuals who are never even charged with the crime at all.

October 6, 2014

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Civil Forfeiture (HBO)

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 16:47

Published on 5 Oct 2014

Did you know police can just take your stuff if they suspect it’s involved in a crime? They can!
It’s a shady process called “civil asset forfeiture,” and it would make for a weird episode of Law and Order.

H/T to Dave Trant for the link.

September 20, 2014

CBC warning to Canadians travelling in the United States

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:11

I’ve seen this CBC link mentioned several times by US commentators:

American shakedown: Police won’t charge you, but they’ll grab your money
U.S. police are operating a co-ordinated scheme to seize as much of the public’s cash as they can

On its official website, the Canadian government informs its citizens that “there is no limit to the amount of money that you may legally take into or out of the United States.” Nonetheless, it adds, banking in the U.S. can be difficult for non-residents, so Canadians shouldn’t carry large amounts of cash.

That last bit is excellent advice, but for an entirely different reason than the one Ottawa cites.

There’s a shakedown going on in the U.S., and the perps are in uniform.

Across America, law enforcement officers — from federal agents to state troopers right down to sheriffs in one-street backwaters — are operating a vast, co-ordinated scheme to grab as much of the public’s cash as they can; “hand over fist,” to use the words of one police trainer.

September 12, 2014

When the government steals, they call it “civil forfeiture”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:53

In Forbes, Jacob Sullum explains the amazingly lenient rules in most states for the government to steal your property:

Three key features of civil forfeiture law give cops this license to steal:

The government does not have to charge you with a crime, let alone convict you, to take your property. Under federal law and the laws of many states, a forfeiture is justified if the government can show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it is connected to a crime, typically a drug offense. That standard, which amounts to any probability greater than 50 percent, is much easier to satisfy than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for a criminal trial. Some states allow forfeiture based on probable cause, a standard even weaker than preponderance of the evidence.

The burden of proof is on you. Innocent owners like Mandrel Stuart have to prove their innocence, a reversal of the rule in criminal cases. Meanwhile, the government hangs onto the money, which puts financial stress on the owner and makes it harder for him to challenge the forfeiture.

Cops keep the loot. Local cops and prosecutors who pursue forfeiture under federal law, which is what happened in Stuart’s case, receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. Some states are even more generous, but others give law enforcement agencies a smaller cut, making federal forfeiture under the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program a tempting alternative. The fact that police have a direct financial interest in forfeitures creates an incentive for pretextual traffic stops aimed at finding money or other property to seize. The Post found that “298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.”

There’s at least some awareness in the Senate that the civil forfeiture rules are being abused:

The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in July, addresses each of these issues. The FAIR Act changes the standard of proof in federal forfeiture cases from “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” That change does not go as far as the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has been fighting forfeiture abuse for years, would like. I.J. argues that civil forfeiture should be abolished, meaning that a criminal conviction, based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, would be required for the government to take property allegedly connected to a crime. But Paul’s reform would make it harder for the government to prevail if a forfeiture case goes to trial, which might deter seizures of large sums in situations where the evidence is weak.

September 1, 2014

Philadelphia’s growing addiction to civil forfeiture

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:25

In Forbes, Nick Sibilla explains how the city of Philadelphia uses the civil forfeiture laws to enrich city coffers and oppress the residents:

Chris Sourovelis has never had any trouble with the law or been accused of any crime. But that hasn’t stopped the City of Philadelphia from trying to take his home.

The Sourouvelis family, along with thousands of others in Philadelphia, is living a Kafkaesque nightmare: Their property is considered guilty; they must prove their innocence and the very prosecutors they’re fighting can profit from their misery. Now the Institute for Justice has filed a major class-action lawsuit to end these abuses of power.

Back in March, Chris’s son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the home. With no previous arrests or a prior record, a court ordered him to attend rehab. But the very day Sourovelis was driving his son to begin treatment, he got a frantic call from his wife. Without any prior notice, police evicted the Sourovelises and seized the house, using a little-known law known as “civil forfeiture.”

Law enforcement barred the family from living in their own home for over a week. The family could only return home if they banned their son from visiting and relinquished some of their constitutional rights. Adding to the cruel irony, their son has already completed rehab, ending his punishment by the city. “If this can happen to me and my family, it can happen to anybody,” Sourovelis said.

Under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose their property. Instead, the government can forfeit a property if it’s found to “facilitate” a crime, no matter how tenuous the connection. So rather than sue the owner, in civil forfeiture proceedings, the government sues the property itself, leading to surreal case names like Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. The Real Property and Improvements Known as 2544 N. Colorado St.

In other words, thanks to civil forfeiture, the government punishes innocent people for the crimes other people might have committed.

Update: As Eve Harris reminded me, civil forfeiture is not a US-only issue, and the police in British Columbia have been feeding cases to the province’s Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) for further action even when no criminal charges are filed (and sometimes even when the police have violated Charter rights in the process). BC’s CFO was established in 2006 and since then has generated about $41 million in proceeds from civil forfeiture actions. Six other provinces also have civil forfeiture laws, but BC is leading the pack in the scale and scope of their activities. Eve also sent a link to a National Post article (which I can’t quote from without paying a licensing fee, which is why I rarely if ever link to that newspaper).

April 3, 2012

A “routine” traffic stop in Collinsville, Illinois

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:17

Radley Balko tells the full story of a traffic stop in Illinois that demonstrates how eager some police departments are to use “asset forfeiture” to get their hands on the property of innocent people:

Last December, filmmaker Terrance Huff and his friend Jon Seaton were returning to Ohio after attending a “Star Trek” convention in St. Louis. As they passed through a small town in Illinois, a police officer, Michael Reichert, pulled Huff’s red PT Cruiser over to the side of the road, allegedly for an unsafe lane change. Over the next hour, Reichert interrogated the two men, employing a variety of police tactics civil rights attorneys say were aimed at tricking them into giving up their Fourth Amendment rights. Reichert conducted a sweep of Huff’s car with a K-9 dog, then searched Huff’s car by hand. Ultimately, he sent Huff and Seaton on their way with a warning.

Earlier this month, Huff posted to YouTube audio and video footage of the stop taken from Reichert’s dashboard camera. No shots were fired in the incident. No one was beaten, arrested or even handcuffed. Reichert found no measurable amount of contraband in Huff’s car. But Huff’s 17-and-a-half minute video raises important questions about law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, the drug war, profiling and why it’s so difficult to take problematic cops out of the police force.

[. . .]

“When we saw the Huff video in our office, we just laughed,” Rekowski says. “Not because it wasn’t outrageous. But because it’s the kind of thing we see all the time. The stop for a so-called ‘inappropriate lane change,’ the games they play in the questioning, the claims about nervousness or inappropriate behavior that can’t really be contradicted. It’s all routine.”

According to Koester, the defense attorney in private practice, “The dog alert that happens off-camera isn’t unusual either. You see that all the time.”

Koester and Rekowski say the Huff stop has all the markings of a forfeiture fishing expedition. “You see where he asks if [Huff] is carrying large amounts of U.S. currency,” Rekowski says. “It’s pretty clear what they’re after. These kinds of cases put my kids through college.” He laughs, then adds, “I’m only half joking.”

H/T again to Jon, my former virtual landlord.

October 21, 2011

Incentives matter, police edition

Filed under: Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:00

Jonathan Blanks explains that the incentives provided to police officers clearly do influence their behaviour:

Last week, former undercover police officer Stephen Anderson told the New York State Supreme Court that planting drugs on innocent people was so common that it didn’t even register emotionally to him. The story is starting to get traction in the media as an egregious example of police corruption, but it’s notable only because of the admission to the practice in open court. Each year, there are hundreds of cases in which police officers are caught stealing, using, selling, or planting drugs or pocketing the proceeds from drug busts. Despite the obligatory PR protestations that any given instance of corruption is an isolated case, the systemic, legal, social, and economic incentives in every law enforcement agency in America combine to make police corruption virtually inevitable. And with no other category of crimes are these incentives stronger than with drug crimes.

Anderson testified that drugs would be seized from suspects at a given bust, divided, and then used again as evidence against other people on site (or at a time later) who had nothing to do with the initial arrest. This was, in part, due to established drug arrest quotas the officers needed to meet. As public servants, police departments face the same budgetary pressures as any other government entity and thus their officers are required to meet certain benchmarks set by the powers that be. Added to the normal budgetary justification, however, many police officers are in the position to confiscate cash and property that can be sold at auction thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws. Many departments across the country keep a percentage or the entirety of forfeiture proceeds, so pressure to maintain a certain level of drug arrests is something straight out of Public Choice: 101.

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