Seizing Citizens’ Property as a Revenue Source for Law Enforcement
Federal and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly using civil forfeiture to seize properties of Americans, from criminals to innocent individuals. In doing so, police have turned the forfeitures into a billion-dollar revenue generator.
Civil forfeitures were first set up to deny convicted drug dealers, embezzlers, racketeers and other offenders from keeping property obtained with tainted money. While this is still the case in many instances, other people not accused of committing a crime are also having their homes and other possessions taken away by law enforcement.
Isaiah Thompson reported for ProPublica: “Over the last two decades, forfeitures have evolved into a booming business for police agencies across the country, from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to small-town sheriff’s offices.”
In 2000, officials seized $500 million in forfeitures. By 2012, that amount rose to $4.2 billion, an eightfold increase.
Along the way, innocent homeowners have struggled to keep their properties in the face of questionable forfeitures.
In Philadelphia, police tried to seize the home of Rochelle Bing, 42, a home health assistant for the elderly and disabled, whose 24-year-old son was caught selling crack cocaine. Even though Bing was not involved in the crime or accused of breaking the law, she had to fight a civil forfeiture with limited means.
“For me to lose my home,” she told ProPublica, “for them to take that from me, knowing I had grandchildren—that would have hurt me more than anything.”
In Philadelphia alone, between 2008 and 2012, nearly 2,000 forfeiture actions were filed against houses whose owner’s children or grandchild were alleged to have committed drug offenses. In only 30 of those cases did a judge reject the seizure of the home, according to ProPublica’s investigation.
The Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., is reported to be “seiz[ing] cars by the hundreds” based on suspicion of illegal activity. The vehicle owners must post a $2,500 bond merely to challenge the seizure.
And in Tenaha, Texas, police are said to undertake rampant seizures of cash from people driving along the highway in spite of there being no evidence of criminal activity. One couple, who had planned to use their cash to purchase equipment for the man’s restaurant, also had their infant son seized while they were locked up in jail for the night.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman
To Learn More:
Law to Clean Up ‘Nuisances’ Costs Innocent People Their Homes (by Isaiah Thompson, ProPublica)
Five Egregious Ways Police Are Seizing Property From Those Never Accused Of A Crime (by Nicole Flatow, ThinkProgress)
Police Seizing Property Equals Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Paul Jacob (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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