Robbed By The Cops

Sarah Stillman spotlights the abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws:

The rise of civil forfeiture has, in some areas, proved of great value. It allows the government to extract swift penalties from white-collar criminals and offer restitution to victims of fraud; since 2012, the Department of Justice has turned over more than $1.5 billion in forfeited assets to four hundred thousand crime victims, often in cases of corporate criminality. Federal agents have also used forfeiture to go after ruthless migrant smugglers, organized-crime tycoons, and endangered-species poachers, stripping them of their illicit gains. Global Witness, the anti-corruption group, recently cheered the Justice Department’s civil-forfeiture action targeting the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, which sought his Malibu mansion, Gulfstream jet, and some two million dollars’ worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a bejewelled white glove.

Yet only a small portion of state and local forfeiture cases target powerful entities.

“There’s this myth that they’re cracking down on drug cartels and kingpins,” Lee McGrath, of the Institute for Justice, who recently co-wrote a paper on Georgia’s aggressive use of forfeiture, says. “In reality, it’s small amounts, where people aren’t entitled to a public defender, and can’t afford a lawyer, and the only rational response is to walk away from your property, because of the infeasibility of getting your money back.” In 2011, he reports, fifty-eight local, county, and statewide police forces in Georgia brought in $2.76 million in forfeitures; more than half the items taken were worth less than six hundred and fifty dollars. With minimal oversight, police can then spend nearly all those proceeds, often without reporting where the money has gone.

Ilya Somin believes that the “best solution is to abolish civil asset forfeiture completely”:

As a practical matter, most of the people victimized by asset forfeiture abuse are poor, lacking in political influence, and unable to bear the expense of prolonged litigation. For these reasons, there is little political pressure to prevent the sorts of abuses documented in Stillman’s article and elsewhere. And there is similarly little incentive for higher officials to monitor police and prosecutors’ use of asset forfeiture to curb this kind of behavior. A categorical ban on civil asset forfeiture would be easier to administer than piecemeal reforms, and therefore more likely to succeed.