On: "Use & Abuse of Civil Forfeiture"

I didn't think such blatant small-town-cop shakedowns still exist. They used to be infamous, mostly in the "Deep South." Mostly it was centered around high fines for traffic violations, many of which never occurred. They were called "speed traps." If a driver went even 1 mile an hour over the "posted" limit, they'd be fined a heavy fine. Often, the speed-limits signs were deliberately obscured so that a driver wouldn't know he or she had entered a stretch of road with a lower speed limit. It was all one of the reasons many people thought, and the older among us still think, that decentralized power simply turns small-time locals into little dictatorships with more impunity.

I knew about forfeiture. I remember when Reagan rolled it out. I thought it was going to apply to those who were proven guilty only. What they are doing to the innocent could land some cops and judges behind their own bars.

The following are some highlights from: "Sarah Stillman: Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture : The New Yorker":

...corruption and violations of civil liberties....
...
We're following the law."

Whether this should be the law—whether, in the absence of a judicial finding of guilt, the state should be able to take possession of your property—has been debated since before American independence. In the Colonial period, the English Crown issued "writs of assistance" that permitted customs officials to enter homes or vessels and seize whatever they deemed contraband. As the legal scholars Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen have noted, these writs were "among the key grievances that triggered the American Revolution." The new nation's Bill of Rights would expressly forbid "unreasonable searches and seizures" and promise that no one would be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process." Nonetheless, Congress soon authorized the use of civil-forfeiture actions against pirates and smugglers.
...
Guillory eventually found the deal threatening to take Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson's children unless the couple signed away their money to Shelby County. "It's like they were memorializing the fact that they were abdicating their responsibility to fight crime," Guillory said. "If you believe children are in sufficient danger that they should be removed from their parents—don't trade that for money!" Usually, police and prosecutors are careful about how they broker such exchanges. But Shelby County officials were so brazen about their swap-meet approach to law enforcement, he says, "they put it in the damn document!"

Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. "It was a highway-piracy operation,"....
...
The suit accused the mayor of Tenaha and other town and Shelby County officials of operating "an illegal practice of stopping, detaining, searching, and often seizing property from citizens," and doing so "not for any legitimate law enforcement purpose but to enrich their offices and perhaps themselves." The practice was discriminatory, the suit alleged, and in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, "at least."
...
the discussion turned to specific traffic stops. Garrigan asked about Dale Agostini, the Guyanese restaurateur who wanted to kiss his infant son goodbye before being taken to jail for money laundering. Why did Washington think he was entitled to seize the Agostini family's cash?

"It's no more theirs than a man on the moon," Washington said. "It belongs to an organization of people that are narcotics traffickers."

"Do you have any evidence, any rational basis to tell us that this money belonged to an organization of narcotics traffickers?" Garrigan asked. "Or is that more speculation?"

"I don't have any evidence today," Washington said.

Garrigan asked about an iPod that was also taken from Agostini's car. "What was your basis for taking that away from them?"

"Well, it's in the car, and all those things can be looked at," Washington explained. "Because if they're using any of those items in the process of travelling to do something that's illegal, then you can take all of those things. Even if it's a pillow that they lay their head on."

"Is there any limit?"

"No. President Reagan says there's no limit. It's time to get serious about this thing. And I think that's how some of our laws are the way they are, is because it's time to fight the war on drugs and say, 'Let's fight them,' instead of just saying we're going to do it."

Garrigan was relieved. Washington, rather than hiding behind legalistic justifications, proudly outlined his vision of forfeiture: that its scope was boundless, that mere "indicators" were enough to trigger it, and that warfare was an apt analogy for the pursuit of cash, cars, and even iPods from drivers whom he deemed suspicious. If that were a fair characterization of Texas policy, a judge's sympathy for the plaintiffs seemed likely. So did a public outcry for reform.

"Did you find any drugs?" Garrigan asked.

"No."

"Is there any evidence that they were buying drugs, instead of looking at restaurants in Houston?"

"No, not yet."

"Do you, for some reason, think people driving up and down 59 owe you an explanation for why they might have money?"

"Sure they do."

Sarah Stillman: The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture : The New Yorker

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  • Tom Usher

    About Tom Usher

    Employment: 2008 - present, website developer and writer. 2015 - present, insurance broker. Education: Arizona State University, Bachelor of Science in Political Science. City University of Seattle, graduate studies in Public Administration. Volunteerism: 2007 - present, president of the Real Liberal Christian Church and Christian Commons Project.
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