For those who have not yet heard of the overtly unconstitutional, yet legal practice of civil asset forfeiture, it might be difficult to believe that any public official charged with the safety and protection of the average citizen, would, or could carry out what amounts to no more than armed robbery with a badge. Yet sadly, it has become so rampant, with zero accountability, that most states are now beginning their belated attempt to curb this practice before it becomes too clear to everyone watching that we, as Americans, only truly have rights … when they allow it.
The practice is essentially a way for police to seize cash or property that they suspect is, or will be involved in a crime, or is a result of illegal activity, and use the proceeds for themselves. Like many such laws, on the surface it seems like a perfectly respectable way to insure those “dirty rotten drug dealers” and “evil king pins” are not allowed to flout the law with their riches and possessions acquired through criminal activity. However, as all such laws go wrong, it is made with the underlying assumption of honesty, morality and integrity for the entirety of police that will never apply to every person that wears that uniform; most in this country are now beginning to see that quite clearly.
California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a piece of legislation requiring police to secure a conviction before reflexively stealing the goods of one who has not yet been convicted of a crime. This would seem like common sense, and an attempt to stop what is obviously a violation of more than one constitutional right, yet police forces all over the country actively seek out those from which they can legally steal, under the current law, in order to buy such things as margarita machines for their break room(which is a true story). They do this instead of going after actual criminals who pose a threat to society. This is just human nature; if you give anyone a profit-motive that incentivizes illegal activity, the vast majority will dive into that illegal activity without batting an eye, especially if they were told, “well, it’s no longer illegal, but it’s just immoral.” And those morally ambiguous cops, which have seemingly begun to dominate the force, pounce on their opportunity to benefit themselves at the expense of one more victim of the American police state.
This is exactly what we are seeing today with people such as Victor Ramos Guzman, who was driving with his brother-in-law on I-95 south of Richmond carrying $28,500 in church funds meant for the purchase of land to build a church in El Salvador and a trailer for a new congregation in North Carolina. A Virginia state trooper stopped them for “speeding and following too closely.” After showing the trooper documents indicating that they belonged to a tax-exempt church, and that the cash had been collected from congregation members, the trooper disregarded their explanations. He then escorted the men to a nearby police station. He did not issue a ticket but seized the cash.
This case is widely cited as a case study in civil forfeiture abuse, there wasn’t even a suspected crime, only the fact that they had cash in the car, and despite the obvious tax paperwork and church documentation, the officers still opted to take the cash, simply because they could. Victor Guzman or the church, never saw that money again. It is important to address the fact that this is not the exception to the rule, it is the rule; and this is not a case of a “few bad apples,” as many states, such as California, are beginning to get legislation in motion to stop this clear violation of constitutional rights.
California’s new law, formerly Senate Bill 443, puts an end to the very dystopian policing-for-profit tactic in the exact way advocates of civil asset forfeiture reform have been demanding for years. For police to keep cash stolen from people in amounts below $40,000 under the premise it has something to do with a drug-related crime, there must be an actual guilty verdict in court. This is definitely a step in the right direction, however, this should apply no matter the amount, as it is an individual’s right to do what they wish with their own money, even if that is carrying it around. As ill-advised as that might be, it is not illegal, despite the government’s best efforts.
“The new law establishes some of the strongest property rights protections in the most populous state in the nation,” explained Theshia Naidoo, legal director of criminal justice at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “The reforms are a model not only because of the policy enacted, but also for how the legislative process should work to promote the best interests of Californians.”
California’s practice of this legalized robbery was especially bad, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California revealed that some Californian police departments were allowed to keep 80% of the proceeds from the sale of seized goods, whether or not it was justified, which is well over the state mandated 65% cap.
California’s law will go into effect in the beginning of 2017, and — out of several states recently attempting to curb the ridiculous practice — is so far the only legislation to mandate an actual conviction, a guilty verdict, in order for police to keep assets.
“Civil asset forfeiture has allowed the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity even if the owner is never convicted of a crime. While civil asset forfeiture was originally conceived in the 1980s as a way to target the resources of criminal organizations, it has become a method for law enforcement to confiscate and profit from the savings and property of those not charged with any criminal wrongdoing […] – Drug Policy Alliance
One important point to focus on is the fact that this practice is carried out based solely on the assumption of a crime, or that one could be carried out in the future. Even a child can see how that can be, and currently is, being grossly abused. The Last American Vagabond has extensively covered this blatant practice and how it is used as no more than a way for police forces to bolster their coffers at the expense of what is usually an unsuspecting civilian who naively thought they could travel safely with valuables in the United States of America.
Related Reading: Seizing the American Dream: A Sad Tale of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Another good example of this abuse is a case in Oklahoma where Electronic Recovery and Access to Data machines, known as ERAD were used, which can actually scan your bank accounts and pre-paid cards, and if they decide to make the claim that any of that money is somehow related to criminal activity, they can literally take every cent, with no warrant, or justification other than you seemed suspicious.
In the event that an individual goes through the lengthy process of proving they committed no wrong-doing, and can somehow tackle the impossible feat of proving they had no intention of committing a crime, the obligation is then on the individual to get their rightful belongings back, which in the vast majority of cases, never happens. The police then still get to sell the stolen items for their benefit. This is precisely why this practice has gotten so out of control. Whether a person was breaking the law or not, the police still get what they wanted out of the exchange. Let’s hope more states will follow the lead of California’s legislation, and continue to find ways to protect the people… from their protectors.
Personal Note: What should truly upset us all, is that these are police officers; the very station meant to protect and serve, as cliché as that has become. If these men and women in blue are truly here to protect us, and have our best interest in mind, as we are forcefully led to believe, then I would like to think that when a law such as this is in place, that is clearly operating at the expense of the American people, that these so-called “protectors” would do just that, protect us; protect the rights of the American people. Yet what we see is a child-like excitement at their new military toys and surveillance gear, that’s not used to protect us, but as protection from us. There is no way that these officers are under the impression that they are doing good when they steal from an innocent person for the direct gain of the department. Which means that the officers that use this practice are maliciously and willfully taking what is not theirs, and the rest are choosing to say nothing. That is not protection, that is extortion, and should show us all the core values practiced by many of those who choose to don the uniform.
Sources: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160SB443, http://thefreethoughtproject.com/theft-robbery-police-ban-california/, https://www.aclunc.org/our-work/legislation/close-asset-forfeiture-loophole-sb-443, http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/2016/09/california-governor-brown-signs-bill-protecting-californians-civil-asset-forfeiture-abu