Police agencies across the United States are seizing billions of dollars annually in assets and money from people never convicted of crimes, and they’ve been getting away with it for decades.
Law enforcement uses civil forfeiture to make fortunes in towns around the US, and only a select few of the innocent parties impacted by the practice are lucky enough to have their cash and other goodies ever returned.
And while police groups started collecting assets through civil forfeiture in order to take down drug lords and mob bosses, a 12-page report published in the New Yorker this week by Sarah Stillman reveals that agencies are using it to drive people to poverty, often without rhyme or reason.
“The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing,” Stillman wrote. “It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime.”
According to the author, the US Department of Justice went from raking in 25 million dollars through civil forfeiture nearly 30 years ago to a record $4.2 billion last year. Often, those funds are then used to pay for police salaries and award officers with annual bonuses. And unless victims have the resources to find a well-equipped attorney, they are often without any sort of recourse.
Stillman reveals that civil forfeiture is used by state and federal agencies to penalize the people behind cockfighting rings and basement gambling groups, among others, but the board scope allows many people to be punished for seemingly no reason.
“In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with ‘probable cause’ is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one,” she wrote. “Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.”
Stillman profiles several instances where families across the US lose upwards of millions apiece because of civil forfeiture abuse. In one instance, an elderly couple from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had their home seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana from the property’s porch; in another, a Pentecostal church secretary had all $28,500 worth of donations in his car seized when a state trooper in Virginia stopped him for speeding.
"We could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the money was church money from parishioners’ donations,” the secretary’s attorney, David Smith told The New Yorker. “But these were people who didn’t have the means to fight back. They weren’t well-to-do. They didn’t know any senators or congressmen, they weren’t citizens. They had no voice.”
Often there’s no chance of leniency from the court, either. According to a report this week in ProPublica, only 30 of the 2,000 civil forfeiture cases that occurred in Philadelphia between 2008 and 2012 ended with the judge rejecting the seizure. Other times, victims who aren’t even convicted come out of the case clasping to whatever assets remain.
At ProPublica, journalist Isaiah Thompson recalled another case in Philadelphia where the police tried to seize the home belonging to a grandmother of 18 because one of her residents, her 24-year-old son, had been charged with selling cocaine.
“Police reported finding unused packets, though not drugs, in a rear bedroom,” Thompson wrote. “Rochelle Bing was not present and was not accused of a crime. Yet she soon received a frightening letter from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.”
"For me to lose my home," Bing told ProPublica, "for them to take that from me, knowing I had grandchildren - that would have hurt me more than anything."
"On the federal level, you tend to see bigger cases get attention - kingpins and that sort of thing - which is what Congress intended with forfeiture," Louis Rulli, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Thompson. "But coming after the parents and the grandparents, who have nothing to do with it?" he says. "The logic does not hold up to me."