August 7, 2013
The New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman has a heartbreaking story out on an appalling police tactic — civil forfeiture, which lets local police departments make tons of money from taking supposed criminals’ property.
Civil forfeiture is largely a product of the war on drugs. In 1984, Congress passed an omnibus crime bill that gave local police departments a cut of the assets seized during drug raids and other investigations.
Through civil forfeiture, cops can take property they believe was obtained illicitly before you’re convicted of any wrongdoing in a court of law. The people whose assets have been seized then have to go to court to try to get it back, which may cost more money than the property itself.
In many cases, civil forfeiture affects poor minorities who have little recourse.
The New Yorker profiled one elderly West Philadelphia couple, Mary and Leon Adams, whose home was seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of pot on their porch. (They received an eviction notice but were able to stay in their home during the forfeiture proceedings because of Leon’s health conditions.) They were never even charged with a crime.
Victor Ramos Guzman, a Pentecostal church secretary from El Salvador, was driving $28,500 worth of parishioners’ donations to buy a new parcel of land for the church with his brother-in-law when they were stopped for speeding in Virginia.
The state trooper who stopped him seized the cash, according to The New Yorker.
Guzman only got it back with the help of David Smith, who was a high-up lawyer with the Justice Department’s Forfeiture Office during the Reagan administration but now defends victims of the policy for free.
“We could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the money was church money from parishioners’ donations,” Smith told The New Yorker. “But these were people who didn’t have the means to fight back. They weren’t well-to-do. They didn’t know any senators or congressmen, they weren’t citizens. They had no voice.”
Some victims of civil forfeiture have started fighting back, though. They banded together in Tenaha, Texas — where the practice is particularly egregious — to file a class-action lawsuit. To settle the case, Tenaha agreed to dramatically reform its civil forfeiture procedures to ensure they don’t ensnare innocent people.