There’s a fine article in the NY Times regarding police abuses with civil forfeiture laws. Not only are some police departments conscious they’re abusing people with these laws, but they boast about it and even cover in seminars how best to abuse it and get away with it.
Legal activist group the Institute for Justice caught at least three departments nationwide passing along tips for purposeful and selective asset forfeiture during seminars and conferences. The article relates:
Much of the nuts-and-bolts how-to of civil forfeiture is passed on in continuing education seminars for local prosecutors and law enforcement officials, some of which have been captured on video. The Institute for Justice, which brought the videos to the attention of The Times, says they show how cynical the practice has become and how profit motives can outweigh public safety.
In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets. The Times reviewed three sessions, one in Santa Fe, N.M., that took place in September, one in New Jersey that was undated, and one in Georgia in September that was not videotaped.
Officials offered advice on dealing with skeptical judges, mocked Hispanics whose cars were seized, and made comments that, the Institute for Justice said, gave weight to the argument that civil forfeiture encourages decisions based on the value of the assets to be seized rather than public safety. In the Georgia session, the prosecutor leading the talk boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture in Georgia, where seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car.
The article relates an interview with Sean McMurtry, chief of police of Mercer County, NJ (Trenton area), who says, “We’re very proud of our forfeiture operation,” because it’s a good deterrent to crime. But the conference talk captured on video reveals perhaps the real reasons he favors the “operation” so much:
[I]n the video, Mr. McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said. . . .
Mr. McMurtry said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,” Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. “If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.”
In another video, Harry Connelly Jr., city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., referred to seized assets as “little goodies,” and said, “We always try to get once in a while, maybe, a good car.” He advised police officers to be mindful of legal loopholes that could allow people to regain their property easily. He detailed one incident that occurred outside a local bar:
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’”
But, he goes on to say, the cops in question arrested the guy as he exited the bar, and just before he actually touched his vehicle. Since he had not yet touched it, he was not legally “in control” of the vehicle, and it therefore could not legally be seized. Connelly laments:
Lo and behold, we finally get the facts that he didn’t have control [of the vehicle], and so we, like, “gulp”—back goes his car, because . . . we didn’t wait. We should have let the door open, sit down, “hello?” pop! [simulating handcuffs]. Then we’d have been alright. But so, we gave it back.
Prosecutors boasted in the sessions that seizure cases were rarely contested or appealed. But civil forfeiture places the burden on owners, who must pay court fees and legal costs to get their property back. Many seizures go uncontested because the property is not worth the expense.
And often the first hearing is presided over not by a judge but by the prosecutor whose office benefits from the proceeds, and who has wide discretion in deciding whether to forfeit the property or return it, sometimes in exchange for a steep fine.
The article relates that, despite growing popular opposition to such laws, “many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets.” Indeed, from just what is related here, it is clear that the practice that was first justified specifically as part of the War of Drugs has now been expanded to more common issues such as DWI and domestic abuse.
Yes, we all want such things to stop, but further expanding already unconstitutional police powers to do so is a recipe for destroying civilization in the name of deterring a few criminals. And laws that give police departments financial incentives—indeed, party incentives!—to expand tyranny is socially insane. It is social suicide. Folks, with these laws, we are subsidizing the trampling of the Constitution and freedom in general.