Civil asset forfeiture is a legal construct under which governments seize property that is believed to have been used for or obtained through criminal activity. While the practice has been in place for quite some time throughout history, it has been ramped up as a feature of the War on Drugs. Under current rules, police often seize property like cash, cars, and homes from innocent family members of suspects, accused suspects who are eventually proven innocent, and other individuals who did not commit a crime. Since cops can seize any item that was believed to be involved in a crime, even from owners who themselves are innocent, without the same level of due process afforded to a criminal defendant, stories of abuses in which innocent people have had their property taken without recourse are starting to appear in the news with increasing frequency. The above-embedded video by the Institute for Justice demonstrates criticisms and examples of abuses that have been pointed out by opponents of civil asset forfeiture.
The fact that police departments can seize certain desired items and then put them to use has created an incentive for officers to seize property on the basis of the usefulness of the items in question, rather than on the basis of the insidiousness of the criminal activity being perpetrated. According to a report by The New York Times on civil asset forfeiture training seminars for police, officers have been instructed to watch for and seize big ticket items on police departments’ wish lists while patrolling the streets.
Allegedly, cops are being trained to focus on seizing items such as expensive cars, cash, and flat screen TVs which departments can put to use. The seizure of less useful items is discouraged. As an example, cops were told that computers are not worthwhile to seize as police agencies already have too many of them. Officers were also coached on how to argue against the complaints of innocent property owners who are facing property seizure under civil asset forfeiture despite not breaking any laws.
In fact, Las Cruces, New Mexico city attorney Harry S. Connelly Jr. was caught on tape back in September in videos leaked by the Institute for Justice coaching officers to be careful in how they seize property to make sure that it is eligible to be taken by describing a scenario in which officers were so excited to seize a luxury car that they failed to wait for the inebriated owner to take control of his vehicle before attempting to arrest him and seize it. Said Connelly, “And we always try to get, every once in a while, like, maybe a good car. There was a stakeout at a bar, and this guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new, just so beautiful. I mean, the cops were undercover and it was like, ‘Ahh!’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, we can hardly wait!’ So he goes in the place and they refuse to serve him because he’s drunk… and our police are just as excited as they can be, and he walks outside, and just as he’s about to touch the car, our police officer goes, whap, ‘You’re under arrest!’… [The suspect] didn’t have control of the vehicle. You don’t have to drive the vehicle in New Mexico to control it — sleep in it, lay on it, do whatever you want, and so we thought, damn, we got a 2008 Mercedes Benz… and lo and behold, we finally get the facts that he didn’t have control, and we have to like, gulp, back goes his car, cause… we didn’t wait… That’s just one of the little goodies that we got.”
Connelly was also caught admitting that he sometimes works with police to help them obtain items from suspects for their wish lists, saying, “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it.”
Gary Bergman of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia defended civil asset forfeiture in comments to The New York Times, saying, “All they hear is the woman was left on the side of the road and the police drove off with her car and her money, no connection to drugs. I’m not saying that that doesn’t happen — it does. It should not. But they never hear about all the people that get stopped with the drugs in their cars, in their houses, the manufacturing operations we see, all the useful things we do with the money, the equipment, vehicles. They don’t hear about that.”
Critics have complained that civil asset forfeiture, as it works under the War on Drugs, creates an incentive for police to take property from innocent people in an effort to equip their departments with wish list items. It is worth noting that, while civil asset forfeiture has a particular association with drug crime, it is also sometimes used to obtain property connected to other types of crime as well.