If you’re planning to speed, turn without signaling or commit some other minor offense, make sure you don’t have a lot of cash on hand.
As strange as that sentence may sound, the nation is brimming with stories of drivers who end up losing their money through routine traffic stops, even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Take the example of George Reby, a New Jersey resident who got pulled over in Tennessee for
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speeding. He had about $20,000 in cash stuffed in a bag — money he said he needed because he was trying to buy a car on eBay. According to accounts from several news sources, Reby agreed to let the officer search his car, and he told the officer about the money.
The officer told News Channel 5 in Tennessee that he suspected the cash was drug money, and so he confiscated it even though he never arrested Reby, who, he said, couldn’t prove it wasn’t drug money.
As outrageous as this sounds, the officer acted within the law, and what he did could happen in virtually every state under civil asset forfeiture laws.
About 30 years ago, liberal asset forfeiture laws were passed as crime-fighting measures. The thinking was that this provided an extra, powerful tool against organized crime and the excessive underground profits from illegal drug sales.
But over time it has turned into a money-making tool for police departments and local governments.
Under criminal-asset forfeiture laws, property may be seized after a criminal conviction. But under civil asset forfeiture laws, no conviction is needed. In fact, police don’t even need a charge. And victims have to endure long and costly court proceedings in order to get their property back.
The Institute for Justice, a Libertarian public interest law firm, has just published a study on “The abuse of civil asset forfeiture” nationwide. It estimates the federal government took $4.5 billion in 2014 in confiscated property, up from $93.7 million in 1986.
It’s harder to calculate how much states are collecting because so few of them keep reliable records. Only 11 states make any information about these funds available online. In the other states, you need to request records that often are incomplete, following rules that often are complicated.
To complicate matters further, states participate in a federal program known as “equitable sharing.” States confiscate property under federal law, turn the assets over to Washington, then receive up to 80 percent of it back. This circumvents state laws aimed at putting tighter controls on these seizures.
The Institute for Justice said state and local agencies reaped $4.7 billion this way from 2000 to 2013.
Utah gets a D- in the report for its forfeiture laws, but it has good company. Thirty-five states scored a D+ or worse.
Utah, the report said, passed laws that require police actually tie the property they confiscate to a crime “by clear and convincing evidence.” However, this is not as strong as a court’s burden of doing so beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, Utah scores points for treating people as innocent until proven otherwise in court, rather than the other way around.
But the state allows local police to keep 100 percent of what they seize, which undercuts the other gains.
Utah collects an average of $1.7 million this way each year. The money goes into a restricted account for law-enforcement projects, the report said.
This is one of those few issues you could bring up at a dinner party and find conservatives and liberals getting along. The conservative Heritage Foundation’s website has a fact sheet on the practice that notes, “many of its targets are innocent members of the public.” The liberal ACLU’s website says the issue “has shaken our nation’s conscience.”
And Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, says, “I have never understood why civil asset forfeiture doesn't inspire more outrage.”
It’s a good question.
As for George Reby, he eventually got his money back, but only because he could afford an attorney and another trip to Tennessee. That doesn’t sound much like justice the American way, does it?
While many criminals do deserve to lose their property, tighter rules would help protect the innocent.