Civil Forfeiture and the Drug War

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by Limus Woods

A scene from the 2001 movie Training Day comes to mind when I think about what civil forfeiture is at its root. In the movie, Denzel Washington plays a dirty detective named Alonzo, and Ethan Hawke played his newbie cop trainee, Jake, on his first day as a officer. The two of them get a lead to a suspect named Sandman, and Alonzo decides that he wants to search his house. He doesn’t have a warrant, so he folds up a Chinese restaurant menu that he’s planning on using as a fake. Before they got to the door, Jake says to him, “We can’t do that…” and Alonzo responds “Yes we can, we’re the police we can do whatever we want…” He then quickly flashes the folded menu at the door of the house after banging on it and yelling “Police!”, then upon forcefully entering turns Sandman’s wife’s bedroom (who was played by Macy Gray) upside down until he finds a stash of money, buries it in his pants, and exits the house.

Civil forfeiture is referred to by many people as essentially a ‘free cash grab’ for police, where they can simply have a hunch that you’re doing something illegal, then take all types of your property off that hunch alone, from the money you have on you, to your car, your jewelry, or anything else in your possession that they want. You don’t ever actually have to be charged for anything in order for them to do this to you. But, they can keep your stuff, and you have to go through a long legal process just to get it back. The original idea of civil forfeiture was to retrieve property from real criminals who attained that property through a criminal act, or who were using the property to execute criminal acts. But, what has happened over the years is that innocent people have gotten their stuff taken frequently by police, property that they attained absolutely legally.

Fox News recently reported that over the last decade the Department of Justice has collected roughly $28 million in civil forfeiture seizures from people who were many times innocent citizens who did nothing wrong at all, but who couldn’t afford the legal and court fees necessary to get their stuff back. They have to prove in court that their belongings were attained legally, and, if they don’t go to court, they’ll probably never see their property again. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to bring civil forfeiture back into full effect. “We hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture, especially forfeiture of ill-gotten gains of drug dealers, with care, you gotta be careful, and professionalism,” he said in the widely hated July 2017 announcement. “We plan to develop policies to increase forfeiture.”

One August 2017 USA Today report showed just how ruthless some cops can be when seizing property through civil forfeiture. The article itself had written statements from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from March of this year. He stated that the system of civil forfeiture “has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses” and that civil forfeiture “frequently targets the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests.”

According to the Institute for Justice, as of right now there are fourteen States that actually require a suspect to have a real criminal conviction in most cases of having to comply to this type of forfeiture. The States are North Carolina, California, Missouri, Oregon, Minnesota, Vermont, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa and Connecticut.

Sources:

Attorney General Sessions announces policy to increase civil forfeiture. Fox Business News. Retrieved from https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=sqxyMjvljRk

What is Civil Asset Forfeiture? Texas Appleseed. Retrieved from
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_abkROfTd1U

Training Day, 2001. Full Cast. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0139654/fullcredits/

6 Aug 2017. Civil Asset Forfeiture is Not Policing the USA. USA Today. Retrieved from
https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/08/06/civil-asset-forfeiture-not-policing-usa-editorials-debates/534028001/

Civil Forfeiture Reforms on the State Level. Institute for Justice. Retrieved from http://ij.org/activism/legislation/civil-forfeiture-legislative-highlights/

Limus Woods is a Professional Writer/Editor and member of the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors (IAPWE https://www.iapwe.org/9061511.html). He can be reached at limusw@gmail.com.