US police now confiscate more assets than thieves and burglars
POWERS given to US police to permanently confiscate cash and belongings from suspects has led to an explosion of “authorised robberies” as critics say police stations across the country are acting like criminal gangs.
Civil Asset Forfeiture laws have long been a source of immense controversy in America, but the most recent data reveals the depths of the issue as the amount of property seized by police has begun to easily eclipse that stolen by criminals.
Under US state and federal law, police departments can seize and keep property that is suspected of involvement in criminal activity. But what is most shocking, unlike criminal asset forfeiture, is with civil forfeiture a property owner doesn’t need to be found guilty of a crime, or even charged of one, to permanently lose their cash, car, or other belongings.
As Bloombergput it this month; “effectively, the police have been given official sanction to commit literal highway robbery.”
The laws were implemented in the late 80s as a part of the country’s ongoing drug war, but their use has exploded in the past five years.
In 2010 the value of assets seized by police increased by a staggering 58.2 per centfrom the previous year as the federal government seized a total value of $1.7 billion in assets. In 2014 that number swelled to $US4.5 billion (a 485 per cent increase from 2001). According to the FBI, the total amount of goods stolen by criminals in 2014 burglary offences was $3.9 billion.
Over half a billion less.
A report released this month by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit civil liberties law firm, said the past decade has seen a “meteoric, exponential increase” in the law being evoked.
The report notes the Civil Asset Forfeiture law “encourages police and prosecutors to pursue property, even at the expense of other law enforcement priorities.”
According to an investigation last year by the Washington Post, a thriving subculture of police competing to see who could seize the most cash and contraband was developed as police took “trophy shots” with cash and cars to share between themselves.
Several former police have spoken out about the corruption built into the law and the perverted incentives it’s created within police departments.
“I look at some of these cases where people have had their property taken away and it just doesn’t smell right. The investigation doesn’t look right, the motivation doesn’t look right,” retired Los Angeles narcotics officer Nick Morrow said in aYouTube video last year.
“It’s been an incredible money maker for local, state and federal agencies” he said.
And it’s that extra revenue that police departments are growing addicted to. In one case, Texas police famously used the money confiscated from one suspect to buy a margarita machine for the department common room.
“Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue streams flowing when budgets are tight,” author of the IJ’s report, Dick Carpenter said.The Civil Asset Forfeiture law has come under intense scrutiny by the media, in large part due to the countless stories of victims being robbed of their belongings and forced into costly legal battles in often futile attempts to get them back.
A recent example is that of 24-year-old Charles Clarke who lost his entire life savings to law enforcement officials at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. He was carrying $US11,000 on him when he went to visit his mum last year. There were no physical bank branches in the area. He and his mum were moving to a new apartment and he had the money on him because he didn’t want to lose it in the move. But when police thought his bag smelled like marijuana, they simply confiscated his cash.
“I was scared, it was a ton of emotions going through my mind,” Clarke toldBusiness Insider. “I didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen, I just knew I was losing my life savings and that I wouldn’t have anything when it was gone.”
He is far from the only one.
This week Watchdog.org reported a case of an 87-year-old Philadelphia woman who carefully saved $US2,000 from her pension checks, storing the money in an upstairs bedroom only for it to be seized by police after her husband was found with two marijuana joints in their home.
Multiple class actions suits have been lodged by those who feel wronged by the laws, but still serious reform is yet to be enacted in most parts of the country.
Despite the large amount of attention paid to the growing issue over recent years, the problem has been allowed to snowball out of control.
And for those affected, and everyone else who bears witness, the distinction between the cops and robbers is becoming increasingly hard to judge.