Civil asset forfeiture has turned into a fundraising scam for federal and local law enforcement agencies, who use the excuse that seized cash, cars and homes are the product of suspected criminal endeavors and thus forfeitable to the government, usually the agency doing the seizing.
It is happening in jurisdictions all across the nation and here in Nevada. A year ago a deputy in Humboldt County pulled over a California tourist in a rental car and grabbed $50,000 in cash that the tourist said he won in a casino, as reported in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and Elko Daily Free Press.
The day after that tourist’s money was seized, Humboldt County Sheriff Ed Kilgore sent out a news release along with a photo of the deputy posing with the cash and a police dog. “This cash would have been used to purchase illegal drugs and now will benefit Humboldt County with training and equipment,” the release boasted. “Great job.”
According to a recording from a dashboard-mounted camera in the patrol car, the tourist asked why he was being searched, and the deputy replied, “Because I’m talking to you … well, no, I don’t have to explain that to you. I’m not going to explain that to you, but I am gonna put my drug dog on that. If my dog alerts, I’m seizing the money. You can try to get it back but you’re not.”
He also told the tourist, “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you.”
The tourist sued and eventually got his cash back.
A couple of months later another man had cash seized by the same deputy.
And you thought the Fourth Amendment guaranteed: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In Philadelphia, the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm, has taken the police to court to try stop what one judge called state-sanctioned theft.
IJ has three clients, all of whom had their homes seized by police. In each case the police claim the property was used to commit minor drug crimes, none of which involved the actual owners.
“The class-action lawsuit challenges several aspects of Philadelphia’s forfeiture scheme. First, Philadelphia routinely seeks orders authorizing its officials to ‘seize and seal’ homes and other real properties — which they accomplish by throwing people, like Chris Sourovelis and their families, out onto the streets,” IJ reports. “But the city does not provide the families with any notice when it seeks such an order, and the homeowners never get a chance to argue why they should not be evicted before they are thrown out.”
A bill has been introduced in Congress to reform the civil forfeiture law.