Friday, March 15, 2019

Civil Asset Forfeiture - And the Beat Goes On

In the last few years, the opposition to the practice of civil asset forfeiture across the country has been rising.  The Institute for Justice has cataloged how the states have responded.  Note that some states appear in more than one grouping.  Much more detail at the IJ link. 
  • Three states—North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska—have abolished civil forfeiture entirely.
  • 29 states and the District of Columbia have reformed their civil forfeiture laws
  • Fifteen states now require a criminal conviction for most or all forfeiture cases and a sixteenth, Utah, forbids forfeiture for cases where the claimants are found not guilty and are acquitted.
  • Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require the government to bear the burden of proof for innocent-owner claims
  • Nineteen states and the District of Columbia instituted new reporting requirements for seizure and forfeiture activity
  • Finally, seven states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-circumvention legislation to close the equitable-sharing loophole.
This despite the president and his former attorney general Sessions vocally endorsing asset forfeiture.

Despite these reforms, the beat goes on.  Asset forfeiture is still happening, and local TV WALB in Lowndes County, Georgia tells the story of a what seems to be a routine traffic stop that resulted in the seizure of over $500,000 in Georgia last week.  H/T to the Foundation for Economic Education - FEE
Two Colombian men were headed south on I-75 when deputies noticed them driving erratically and pulled them over.

“In and out of lanes, just moving over the line, actually slowed down, got a very slow limit of speed on interstate, actually thought the driver might be impaired," said Paulk.

Sheriff Paulk said deputies reported that the men appeared to be very nervous, so they called in K-9s to check the car.

“The dogs, they’ll also alert on a large quantity of money like that, not just cause it’s money but because it has drugs attached to it," said Paulk.
How did they decide it was drug money and could be confiscated?
“All of it is wrapped the same way they wrap cocaine, the same rubber bands, the same style of wrapping. So, when you see that you know where that money’s derived from," said Paulk.
Sounds like a rock solid case to me!  I mean it used the same rubber bands!  I say, "rock solid case" deliberately tongue in cheek because "case" implies actual due process.  With asset forfeiture in several states, actual charges of criminal violation and resulting conviction are required. Georgia is not one of these states.

There isn't much to this story besides this allegation.  Personally, if I had to be carrying half a million dollars in cash, I'd be nervous about the prospect of being pulled over for nothing and the money seized.

Of course, the lack of criminal charges and proper due process is what most of us who are opposed to asset forfeiture are complaining about, just as many of us complain about "red flag laws" depriving gun owners of property with no due process, not even a hearing with defendant present, and often charging them for the return of their property.  In so many of these asset grabs they never even file charges.  They just see money so they take it. 
According to a Department of Justice Inspector General report, between 2007 and 2017, the DEA alone seized $3.2 billion from individuals who were not charged with a crime. Cash seizures without charges made up 81 percent of the funds analyzed in that report.

Beyond the DEA, law enforcement agencies around the country generate millions of dollars per year through civil asset forfeiture and are often allowed to keep or sell the property they confiscate. Utah police seized $2.1 million in 2017, and an overwhelming majority of the cases—96 percent—were drug-related, reflecting the widespread ramifications of the decades-long War on Drugs (proponents of civil asset forfeiture have claimed the practice is a key tool in the costly, ineffective policy).
I've been writing about civil asset forfeiture over the life of this blog (example).  Nothing would make me happier than see it disappear.  

(source - judging by the maps on the wall, probably not Lowndes county, Georgia)


  1. Ice stole 2000 dollars from me in 2004. 😥. Money that was supposed to go towards my travel expenses while time off from running Iraq convoy.


  2. If a $500K loss isn't enough, how much money at risk would be necessary for the alleged drug dealers to decide shooting to disable the pursuer and escape is the least painful option? Car customizers make car suspensions bounce, but never fire a weapon in the trunk facing backward? Not a heads-up-display, not an in-dash display, not even a string tied to a trigger? $500K isn't worth moving in a convoy, so the alleged drug dealers outnumber and outgun the initial pursuer?

  3. I think they misspelled "theft" again.

    Happy Ides of March!

  4. The average seizure amount is $5k. The cops know that if they take too much, it becomes worthwhile to take them to court. It would take a minimum of 5k to hire a lawyer to take the case. Armed thieves, that's all they have become.

    1. Various state tax boards, notably California's, have been using the practice of coming up with a pretext for seizing money out of bank accounts alleging it's past due taxes. Often for times when the person having money seized never set foot in the state or conducted any business in the state.

      This is their regular modus operandi. Seize a few thousand dollars on the bet that the victim won't spend $5,000 in lawyer fees, court costs and travel to the state for a hearing to get even $10,000 back.

      Government has become organized crime.

  5. Usually if there is an amount on the order of $500K, they will bring in the state taxation people or the IRS, which will do a "jeopardy assessment", and seize the money if it's not a civil forfeiture. People then have the burden to prove that the money was already subject to taxation, because that's how tax law works (burden on you, not the state).

    1. In my mind, the only thing vaguely suspicious about this case is the amount of money they were carrying and that's just because it's well beyond what you might bring in cash to buy a car or boat. Still, if someone wanted to buy a house for cash, so what?

      Until there's a law against carrying cash it's possible it's completely innocent and those people aren't guilty of anything until they've been through a trial by jury.

      35 years ago, I sold a boat for a few k-bucks. The guy brought me cash, still cold from keeping it in his freezer. Today that would require a "Suspicious Activity Report" from the bank. They might be trying to criminalize having cash but they haven't done it yet.

    2. The only time that I've seen a jeopardy assessment used was in an organized crime/counterterrorism case setting, incident to a search warrant. They were task force cases wherein I was the task force commander and IRS was part of the task force. The suspects in question could get their cash back if they could show that tax was paid. In all cases it was close to or over a million dollars in cash.

      We all knew that there was no way on Earth that these guys paid tax on their money.

      If you sold an airplane or a yacht or a house for cash there would be some sort of title involved, possibly an escrow. Yes, maybe you were "bartering", but you'd still change the title, wouldn't you?

      The place the civil forfeiture people get into trouble is when they get greedy and start harassing people over $20 or $30K. Or when they seize things and the person is acquitted of a crime and they don't return them. There should ALWAYS be a conviction associated with forfeiture, and if the item in question - boat, airplane, car, etc. was an instrumentality of delivering drugs or whatever contraband, it should be dealt with by the court at the time of sentencing.

    3. The place the civil forfeiture people get into trouble is when they get greedy and start harassing people over $20 or $30K. Or when they seize things and the person is acquitted of a crime and they don't return them. There should ALWAYS be a conviction associated with forfeiture, and if the item in question - boat, airplane, car, etc. was an instrumentality of delivering drugs or whatever contraband, it should be dealt with by the court at the time of sentencing.

      Absolutely. In the 1990s in Daytona, about an hour north of me, sheriff Bob Vogel was notorious for stopping cars on I-95. If you had cash, you must be a drug dealer, so the cash was seized. Drivers were virtually never charged with a crime so guilt was never proven, yet the police made over $8 Million dollars for a department fund.

      Even worse is when the government doesn't charge a person, but brings charges against a piece property, because property has no rights, as happened in Massachusetts in 2012. It just comes across as the government looting people, or small businesses in that case, because they can.

  6. Government has _always_ been organized crime. I'm not one of those who can blow off the Whiskey Rebellion as being due to bad guys evading the taxes the Constitution allowed the government to collect. Those folks making distilled spirits - not being big land owners or otherwise "gentry" - probably all fought in the Revolution, and though they had won the right to _not_ be taxed arbitrarily. They weren't too happy to discover they had simply changed "masters".