Civil forfeiture laws are strange things that many Americans don't know about. In a nutshell, these financial laws give authorities the right to seize money and assets from people suspected of crimes. But there's a catch: even if a person is never convicted of the suspected crime, authorities have no obligation to return the seized money.
The laws were initially designed to drain organized crime rings of their funds. In many cases, the laws were successfully used for exactly that. Here's where things get murky, though: Since forfeiture cases are civil rather than criminal matters, citizens are not entitled to legal representation when they wish to get their money back. This makes it incredibly difficult for people – especially the poor – to ever reclaim money and assets that are rightfully theirs.
New York has some of the most dated civil forfeiture laws in the nation. Take a look at New York City, for example. The state’s administrative code, which governs the NYPD’s asset forfeiture policies, was written in 1881. The law allows NYPD officers to take the money seized from citizens during forfeitures and place the money in the NYPD pension fund. Quite literally, the law gives officers a financial incentive to seize the money and assets of residents.
One man recently affected by these statutes is Bronx resident Gerald Bryan. Bryan, a bartender who is typically paid in cash, had his home raided by NYPD in March of 2012 for suspected drug dealing. Despite not having a warrant, officers tore through his belongings, punched holes in his walls, gutted his furniture and seized $4,800 in cash. Bryan was taken into custody following the raid.
One year later, the drug dealing case against him was dropped. But when Bryan, a man deemed innocent, went to reclaim the $4,800 seized by police, he was told the money was gone. More specifically, he was informed that the been deposited into the NYPD’s pension fund.
Bryan challenged the seizure and was mostly successful. He was given $4,800 by the state, but the money came out of the state’s general fund – not the NYPD’s pension fund. New York tax payers had to foot the bill while the NYPD got to keep his money.
As counter-intuitive as this all sounds, instances like this are not rare in New York. According to the Institute for Justice’s report, which is aptly named Policing for Profit, district attorneys and law enforcement agencies confiscate an estimated $70 million annually in forfeitures. 85% of the people whose money is seized are never convicted of any crime.