The U.S. federal government and local law enforcement agencies are stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from innocent, hard-working Americans every year — and it’s legal.
Last week, The Washington Post profiled several individuals who lost thousands of dollars in cash after being stopped by the police on various traffic infractions. In each case, officers trained in a technique called “civil forfeiture” seized the money without a warrant.
Civil forfeiture is a legal technique expanded in the 1980s intended for the seizure of assets belonging to hard-core criminals, chiefly those involved in drug cartels. Cops using a technique called “interdiction” can confiscate assets, like cars, boats and cash, without proving that a crime had been committed. Proponents of civil forfeiture say the technique works because it gets “bad guys” off the street, but critics of the technique say innocent Americans get swept up — and not always on accident.
Data reviewed by the Post found nearly 62,000 cash seizures had been made on state highways, the federal interstate system and elsewhere since Sept. 11. Most of those seizures netted around $8,000 per incident — but that cash adds up over time. The Post reports that the total amount of cash seized by local police departments averages around $200 million each year. Of that, 20 percent of the money goes to federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice, while 80 percent is funneled right back to the agency that made the seizure — offering an incentive for officers to be on the lookout for individuals carrying large amounts of cash.
A former Drug Enforcement Agency official who spoke to the Post says law enforcement agencies are increasingly relying on interdiction and civil forfeiture as a way of generating revenue when times get tough.
“They saw this as a way to provide equipment and training for their guys,” former agent Steven Peterson told the paper. “If you seized large amounts of cash, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
In a number of cases, officers seize thousands of dollars from individuals who are never charged with a crime. Those innocent individuals are left with two choices: Fight to get their money back, which can cost thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, or say good-bye to their money forever.
In 2012, Mandrel Stuart was stopped by a police officer in Fairfax County, Va., for what turned out to be a minor traffic infraction: Having a DVD player in view of the driver, an offense that carries a $20 fine. But during a search of the vehicle, the officer found $17,000 in cash. Stuart said the money was to purchase equipment for his barbecue restaurant, but the officer suspected it was used in drug transactions.
Stuart was never charged with a drug offense. Yet police kept the $17,000 in cash they seized from the man that day. He wouldn’t see the money for another year until he took his case to trial, where a jury not only ordered the agency to return his money but also to pay his attorney more than $11,000 in fees. But for Stuart, the verdict came too late — after the 2012 incident, Stuart’s restaurant went under.
“It made me feel good that I won,” Stuart told the Post. “But in the end, it’s like — I had already lost everything by then.”
Congress is already working on a solution that would tighten requirements under civil forfeiture. A bill proposed by Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Mich.) would require the government to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that assets sought to be seized were linked to criminal activity. It would also require officers to notify those who are subject to civil forfeiture that they can receive free or low-cost legal advice should they choose to fight the forfeiture.
“Policing is a necessary and vital element of an orderly society, and the large majority of our law enforcement personnel do difficult work with great professionalism and integrity, but our constitutional framework emphasizes the need to uphold individual rights above all,” Walberg wrote in an editorial for the Post. “We should not accept a system in which Americans must live in fear that their property could be seized by those whose chief mission should be to serve and protect.”
Walberg’s bill is currently in committee. It is unlikely that Congress will take up his bill before the November election.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.