There’s a simple explanation for why civil asset forfeiture laws are coming under fire—they ruin lives.
Not in the way a hefty speeding ticket or 7 am-on-the-dot tow “ruins lives,” but in a real, “my life savings are gone and I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my next meal” kind of way.
Take Philadelphia, for example. From 2002 to 2012, the City of Philadelphia raked in $64 million in forfeiture funds. Licensed marijuana growers in Michigan have had their homes, property, and assets seized, contributing to a 10 year, $250 million payout to law enforcement. New Mexico took in $4 million in one year based on single sniff tests by drug dogs.
The kicker? Much of what is seized by law enforcement is held without any evidence that the property owner has committed a crime.
Last year, 24 year-old Charles Clark became just one more victim of a system that benefits law enforcement at the expense of everyday citizens. He lost $11,000 after officials decided that carrying cash in an airport should be treated as a crime—even though there’s nothing unlawful about it.
The Institute for Justice has the details:
Charles saved his money for the past five years from financial aid, various jobs, educational benefits based on his mother’s status as a disabled veteran and gifts from family. Charles was visiting relatives in Cincinnati while he and his mother were moving to a new apartment back in Florida. He did not want to lose the $11,000, so he took it with him. On his way home, law enforcement officials at the airport seized Charles’ money because they claimed his checked bag smelled like marijuana. Although Charles was a recreational smoker at the time, the officers did not find any drugs or anything illegal on his person or in his carry-on or checked bag. The government should have to prove that Charles committed a crime if it wants to keep his money.
“Carrying cash is not a crime,” explained IJ Attorney Darpana Sheth. “No one should lose their life savings when no drugs or evidence of any crime are found on them or their belongings.”
The problem here is that seizure without explanation is incentivized. The Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky airport police’s take has been comparatively low—$2 million in 2013—but they’re not the only ones who stand to benefit from Charles’ $11,000. Under a process called “equitable sharing,” even agencies who took no part in the search or seizure are entitled to a cut of forfeited funds—which means that 13 different law enforcement agencies are pushing for their cut of what airport authorities took from Charles.
There’s a reason “The Man” always seems to win these cases—that’s what happens when the federal government takes on a 24-year old they just rendered bankrupt.
The Institute for Justice has taken on Charles’ case as part of their cross-country push to take on civil forfeiture abuse. We’ll keep you posted on their progress.DONATE
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