Civil asset forfeiture laws were originally created during the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s to seize the ill-gotten gain of drug king pins, but like so many "get tough on crime" laws, civil forfeiture is often misused against average U.S. citizens.
Police can seize people's property and possessions under civil forfeiture laws without having to prove guilt. In most states, the owner of the property must prove his innocence in court to get his or her belongings back.
This practice has proven to be such a financial windfall for local police departments that there are now seminars instructing police on which items are the best to confiscate for financial gain.
The seminars tell police not to seize jewelry or computers, but rather scoop up Americans' flat screen TVs, fancy cars and cash.
According to The New York Times, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called these items “little goodies” during the City of Santa Fe Vehicle Forfeiture Conference on Sept. 10.
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” stated Connelly. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’”
The New York Times reviewed three seminars on civil forfeiture in Santa Fe, N.M., New Jersey and Georgia.
During the seminars, officials reportedly joked about Hispanic people who lost their cars to civil forfeiture and gave advice on how to convince skeptical judges that civil forfeiture is necessary.
The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm, notes on its website that police seized $17,550 from Mandrel Stuart in Stauton, Va., but never charged him with a crime. Stuart was stopped by Fairfax County Officer Kevin Palizz for having tinted windows.
While 0.01 gram of marijuana was found in Stuart's car, he wasn't charged. Instead, $17,550 of his cash was legally seized under civil forfeiture. Stuart hired an attorney and eventually won his case, but his legal bills were about $12,000.
Forbes reported last year that the government can seize assets before someone goes to trial, so they cannot use "their assets not only to pay for counsel or bail, but to pay their rent, mortgage, car payments or other basic living expenses."