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.
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.
In Texas a couple of years ago police seized cash from a couple who said they were to use it to buy a car at their destination.
In Massachusetts a motel was seized because drug deals had taken place there, though the owners were in no way involved.
In Philadelphia a couple’s home was seized because, unbeknownst to them, their son sold a small quantity of drugs on the front porch.
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.”
Oh, but it is not a criminal case. No one need ever be arrested. The money and property are the guilty parties until proven innocent, if that is even possible.
According to a recent Investor’s Business Daily editorial, the Justice Department’s forfeiture fund has gone from $94 million in 1986 to more than $1 billion today.
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.
The Nevada Legislature should take this matter into its own hands and create a law that prohibits the seizure of private property without proper warrants and reasonable cause. Nevadans should not be forced to hire expensive lawyers and spend years in the courts to prove their property is innocent. It is a matter of due process.
IJ has even drafted a model law that any of our lawmakers could cut and paste into a bill draft request. The model law states law enforcement agencies should not profit from forfeitures and the accused must be found guilty of a crime before the state may take final title to that person’s property.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.