WHAT IS CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE?
Civil asset forfeiture is a process where state or federal officers seize property suspected of being used as part of a crime and try to keep it by suing the owner. Examples of property that is often seized includes money, bank accounts, pre-paid debit cards, vehicles, land and houses. The owner of the property may not necessarily be charged with a crime, but sometimes is.
Asset forfeiture is HIGHLY PROFITABLE for LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES. According to a Washington Post article, in 2014, the federal government took more than $5 BILLION worth of property from citizens — that’s $1.5 BILLION more than BURGLARS took the same year! In Oklahoma, law enforcement agencies seized – and kept – more than $99 million worth of property for fiscal years 2000 through 2014, according to a study by the Institute for Justice. A majority of the property (72%) came from cash forfeitures. (See Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture).
Civil asset forfeiture is ABUSED. Because the law enforcement agency responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these agencies have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture. It’s not unusual for property to be WRONGFULLY seized by authorities, and for the property owner to be treated UNJUSTLY. Look at these examples cited by The New Yorker (See Stillman, Taken, The New Yorker, Aug. 12 & 19, 2013, pgs. 54-56.):
- Police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights.
- . In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver.
- In another case, police seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.
These forfeiture actions frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. (See Sallah, O’Harrow, & Rich, Stop and Seize, Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2014, pp. A1, A10). These same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards.
Even if connected to a crime, hiring an experienced attorney like Stephen Cale may get seized property back to its owner.