Civil asset forfeiture. A long, slightly confusing word that most people can’t define. If you’re one of those people, let’s get you up to speed. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal term that lets law enforcement seize assets or property when they think the owner is using those assets or property to commit a crime. Sounds innocent enough right? Well here’s the kicker, law enforcement can use civil asset forfeiture without charging the owner with any crimes.
No evidence, no probable cause, no due process, just good old police intuition and gut feelings. So let’s say you just cashed a $1,000 birthday check from grandma (thanks granny!). You go wait on the corner for your ride to come pick you up. A cop sees you and thinks, “drug dealers stand on the corner, they must be a drug dealer.” Just like that, your birthday money is buying a margarita machine or a new set of tanks for the police station.
Here’s five of the most jaw dropping, head scratching, punch your computer in the face, civil asset forfeiture moments.
- Someone is so grounded– A family in Philadelphia was evicted from their home with zero notice after their son was allegedly selling heroin from the front porch of their home. Sorry mom and dad, Johnny’s been selling the smack so you gotta go. After spending eight days without a home, the DA graciously allowed the family to return to their home. No charges were ever filed against the parents, who owned the home.
- What’s cooking?– A restaurant owner, his fiance, a one year old child, and a cook (classic criminal syndicate) were all driving through Texas when they were pulled over for the heinous crime of driving in the left lane without passing. The cops then used an untrained dog to sniff the car. The dog found no evidence of drugs, but he did find $50k in cash. The driver informed the officers that he was on his way to buy restaurant equipment from an auction, but that wasn’t acceptable. At the end of the day, police seized the $50k, six cell phones, an iPad, the car, and the child was taken to Child Protective Services. Although everyone in car was arrested and threatened with money laundering and criminal activity, no formal charges were ever filed.
- The “drug dealer” look– An African-American man was driving from Virginia to Delaware when he was pulled over for a tail light out. After seeing the driver the officer put his spidey-senses to work and claimed the driver “looked like a drug dealer.” He then had a drug dog search the car. As you probably guessed, the dog didn’t find anything. Determined to prove the driver is a no good drug dealer, the officer asks him if he has any drugs, guns, or money (because we all know it’s illegal for black people to have money) in the car. The driver told the officer he has $3,500 in the car. The officer took the cash claiming it was drug money, but never charged the driver with anything.
- The house always wins– Fresh off a heater at the casino, Tan Nguyen was driving home with $50,000 in winnings when he saw those dreaded red and blue lights in his rearview mirror. The cops instantly smelled trouble. They were very suspicious of this money, afterall who wins that kind of money in the state of Nevada. The money was seized and Nguyen was told unless he ““got in his car and drove off and forgot this ever happened,” his car would be seized too. No charges were filed, no arrests were made, there weren’t even any traffic tickets issued. Nguyen eventually got his money back in a lawsuit.
- No vacancy– Russ Caswell owed a motel in Massachusetts called Motel Caswell. Over the years, there had been a few drug deals in this motel. Anytime law enforcement got involved Russ was more than compliant and would help officers in whatever way he could. Russ nor his staff had ever been accused of any criminal activity. This is a fact federal agents chose to ignore, when they seized his motel in 2009 for be involved in drug trafficking. It took Russ three and a half years of painful, dragged out litigation to finally get his motel back. Oh, and during those three and half years no charges were ever filed against anyone, except the motel.
Civil asset forfeiture is a big, really scary word. In a world where cops can go with their gut to take whatever they want without any real proof, the words innocent until proven guilty are meaningless.