By Sherwood Ross
State “civil-forfeiture”(CF) laws aimed at drug kingpins are being twisted to confiscate the property of people “never charged with a crime,” The New Yorker magazine (August 12) asserts.
Example: a Philadelphia couple fighting a home eviction after their son sold a small amount of marijuana to an informant.
What’s more, a high proportion of the victims appear to be African-Americans and Latinos, the magazine says.
Example: Tenaha, Texas, where victims of CF actions were motorists who had been pulled over for routine traffic stops, “and the targets were disproportionately black and Latino,” The New Yorker quotes one defense attorney as stating.
Under laws once enacted to penalize drug dealers and their ilk, the authorities using CF “are routinely targeting the workaday homes, cars, cash savings, and other belongings” of the innocent, writes magazine reporter Sarah Stillman.
“In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on par with ‘probable cause’ is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime or even be accused of one,” Stillman adds.
“Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture is a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.”
Owners who wish to contest CF often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods, the magazine reports. “There’s this myth that they’re cracking down on drug cartels and kingpins,” says Lee McGrath, of the Institute for Justice, of Arlington, Va. In fact, the victims “aren’t entitled to a public defender and can’t afford a lawyer and the only rational response is to walk away from your property, because of the unfeasibility of getting your money back.”
Since in many states law enforcement authorities can use CF revenue as they like, the temptation of easy money collides with ethical values. Reporter Stillman writes, in some Texas counties, more than 40 percent of law-enforcement budgets come from forfeiture” so that a system “that proved successful at wringing profits from drug cartels and white-collar fraudsters has given rise to corruption and violations of civil liberties.”
“What stands out to me is the nature of how pervasive and dependent police really are on civil-asset forfeiture—its their bread and butter—and, therefore, how difficult it is to engage in systemic reform,” says Vanita Gupta, a deputy legal director of the ACLU.
Jennifer Boatwright, one of the 140 CF plaintiffs in a suit against Tenaha, Tex., said the county district attorney threatened to put her in jail and her son into child protective services, if she did not sign over $6,000 in her car. “Where are we?” Stillman quotes her as saying. “Is this some kind of foreign country where they’re selling people’s kids off?”
(No, Ms. Boatwright: it’s worse than that. This is some kind of country where the president is ordering illegal drone strikes in foreign countries that are killing children by the score.)
(Sherwood Ross is an international public relations consultant based in Miami, Florida. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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