When cops shake down citizens

Forfeiture laws are meant to deprive criminals of the instruments and proceeds of crime.  This may look great on paper, but without adequate safeguards, these laws create conflicts of interest that encourage misuse of the law and can lead to corruption and oppression.

The latest example of this comes from Philadelphia, a struggling rust-belt city where police and prosecutors are paid with forfeiture money, and the forfeiture authorities are running amok like a plague of locusts.

According to CNN, the second most active Pennsylvania county for forfeitures, Allegheny County, instituted 200 forfeiture actions in the four year period of 2008-2011, an average of 50 per year.  But in Philadelphia, city authorities instituted 6,560 such actions in 2011 alone.

Philadelphia is not alone in abusing forfeiture laws to shake down citizens for houses, cars, cash, and other property for municipal expenses they can’t pay from tax collections.

In Tenaha, Texas, a border town of 1,060 people in 422 households, town police routinely stopped black and Hispanic motorists entering the state from neighboring Louisiana.  These people were hardly ever arrested and prosecuted for any crime; the police were simply after whatever cash and other valuables were in their possession.  The cops used a variety of ugly tactics to “persuade” these victims to sign over their money and goods.  They were threatened with felony prosecution for money laundering, held them in jail, and the cops even threatened to have child services take away their children unless they surrendered their property.  Between 2006 and 2008, more than a thousand unwary travelers fell victim to this scam.  Ultimately, a lawsuit brought by the ACLU shut this operation down.

In Florida, some municipalities fund their entire police departments solely from forfeitures, and several notorious small towns shake down highway travelers with vicious speed traps.  For example, Hampton, a town of 477 people on U.S. Highway 301 which carries through traffic to the popular tourist destination of Orlando, gave 17 town residents jobs as cops who did nothing but write speeding tickets, raking in over $200,000 a year that disappeared into unknown pockets.  That operation was finally shut down when the state legislature threatened to revoke the town’s charter, but other nearby towns still operate speed traps considered among the nation’s most notorious.  And in nearby Waldo, which requires drivers on its short stretch of Hwy. 301 to change speed six times, 7 town cops wrote 45% as many tickets last year as the city of Gainesville’s 300 cops.  After years of complaints, including by its own police officers, Waldo’s police chief has been suspended and the town’s officials are under state investigation.

How can we prevent such abuses of laws never intended to be used this way or for these purposes?

First and foremost, it’s simply too easy for police to seize property and money.  Current laws let them do so without criminal convictions, on nothing more than “probable cause,” which amounts to little more than a cop’s subjective suspicion.  This lenient standard makes it easy for corrupt police to prey on innocent citizens.

Second, the citizens caught up in these police scams lack adequate recourse.  In Philadelphia, a couple whose home was seized over a $40 heroin purchase by their adult son they didn’t know about, found themselves pleading their case, not to an impartial judge, but to the assistant D.A. who authorized the seizure!

Third, local jurisdictions get away with these abuses, and they’re allowed to fester, because no one’s watching.

Several reforms come to mind.  First, forfeitures should be restricted to cases where criminal convictions are obtained.  Second, forfeiture proceeds should go to the state, not the enforcing jurisdiction, so the local authorities processing forfeitures don’t have a monetary incentive to take people’s property.  They should handle these cases as a law enforcement duty, not to meet a “forfeiture quota” so their salaries will be paid or the police will get new squad cars and other equipment.  Third, strengthen due process by having forfeiture appeals heard by impartial judges, not officials with a financial or budgetary interest in the outcome.  Finally, as property seizures and forfeitures are authorized by state laws, states should supervise how they’re implemented, with active monitoring of local jurisdictions where necessary or advisable.  Giving cash-hungry local jurisdictions unsupervised discretion to apply these laws as they see fit creates too much temptation.  Remember the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I’m not implying all cops are corrupt.  There are numerous well-run and honest police departments deserving of our support.  I’m not even arguing here for repeal of civil forfeiture laws.  In the right hands, properly used, they can be a useful tool for fighting crime, if that’s what you want to do.  (Lots of people question the expenditure of billions of dollars and the jailing of hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly minorities, in the name of the “war on drugs,” but I’m not writing about that here.)

All I’m saying is these laws are too easy to abuse, and sometimes are abused, and we should demand our legislators fix those problems.  I’ve suggested several specific reforms above; you may think of more.  Meanwhile, where legislatures fail to stop abuse of these laws, a victimized citizen’s only recourse is to sue.  Hitting corrupt cities, towns, and police departments in their financial ledgers will deter them just as these laws were meant to deter crime.

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  1. loren #

    Try that with me and they would be painfully experiencing the full effect of my second amendment.

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