Thursday, November 20, 2014

Civil Shopping

I’m not much of a shopper – I’m more of a buyer. The hunting and pecking for items bores me to no end. When I find something I like and it’s in the price range that works, I buy it. This is true for big and small purchases. My Realtor was annoyed because I could walk through houses and in moments know if it would work for me or not. So he stopped coming along. 10 minutes after my first walk-thru of the one I knew would work I put an offer in. The sale closed 3 weeks later which felt like an eternity. As we move into the lucrative holiday shopping season, people are making their lists and checking them twice. It’s all part of the ritual of the season. So much so that local government have shopping lists too - of your stuff.

The Week summarized an in-depth The New York Times  article: “Civil asset forfeiture is a little-known practice that allows police or other government agencies to confiscate citizens' money or property without charging them with any crime. Because it is technically the seized asset — not the person who owned it — which is under suspicion, it is typically extremely difficult for people to get their stuff back.”

  • In Philadelphia a family had their home taken away because their son sold $40 of drugs from the front porch. (According to the CNN story, in Philadelphia alone more than 1,000 homes have been seized, 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash have been grabbed in the past decade.)
  • Individuals who have been stopped for suspicion of drunk driving have had the cars they were driving seized and kept by authorities even though the individual didn’t own the car may have just borrowed it (in many cases without permission). Women have been stopped, warned by the cops - not charged - and left standing at the side of the road as officer then drive off in their car.

Innocent victims whose property is confiscated because of an alleged crime somebody else commits can try and get it back. They have to go to court, pay court costs upfront and hire an attorney to advocate for them. Per the Times report: “Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car.”

Let’s reiterate: the property is taken BEFORE there’s an arrest, and BEFORE there’s a conviction. This isn’t a drug kingpin living high on the hog who’s been sentenced and is having their toys taken away which was the original origin and intent of the law. Victims are every day people who have not committed any crime, have not been accused of any crime who lose huge amounts of their own property...often in disproportion to the value of the crime. (A six-figure house is taken over a $40 drug sale.)

The Times article continues: “Mr. McMurtry (chief of the forfeiture unit in the Mercer County, N.J) said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. 'If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,' Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. 'If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.'”


Somebody accused of drunk driving could lose a Ferrari while somebody else could lose a Yugo. It’s all at the discretion of the officers…and what car the local officials may be in the market for. So much for the punishment fitting the (alleged) crime.

A founding principle of the United States was the presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to due process. Civil forfeiture laws – which accounted for $4.2 billion in seized assets in 2012 – have gutted this presumption and thousands of innocent people are hugely impacted. The outrage is that it's not accidental or happenstance. Seminars and trainings are held for law enforcement to show them how to target particular items, which assets yield the best results and provide step by step instructions for dealing with “outraged innocents.” Local agencies seek out certain items (flat screens, vehicles, houses) and avoid others (jewelry and furniture).

This gift giving season be careful what you wish for. Uncle Sam, his cousins and their offspring may want it too. And they can just take it. Civil Forfeiture is really Civil Shopping. And it's wrong.

1 comment:

  1. As often as not, law is merely a tool for government to screw its constituency. Jonathan Swift's ruthlessly satirical (yet all too true) dissection of the law in "Gulliver's Travels" is the most honest description I've ever read. I'm also reminded of one of my older brother's favorite sayings: "Those who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either one being made."

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