CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state forfeiture laws are designed to seize the homes, cars, boats, jewelry, aircraft, bank accounts and other lucrative assets of big-time criminals like druglords and stock swindlers -- ill-gotten gains from crime. The laws work. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department confiscated $4.2 billion, part of which was refunded to victims.
However, other types of police forfeiture actions can hurt innocent people -- such as grandparents whose home is taken because a grandson peddled pot in the driveway, or drivers whose cars and belongings are seized because they were carrying cash. Sometimes officers and prosecutors reap personal "bonuses" from this operation, dubbed "policing for profit." Forfeiture proceeds boost small-town budgets.
The latest New Yorker outlines how "Americans who haven't been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars and even homes." Victims often are blacks, Hispanics or low-income folks with little ability to defend themselves.
The report begins with the story of a Texas waitress who drove with her children and boyfriend to buy a used car. She put her cash savings in the console between front seats. At the small town of Tenaha, a city cop pulled them over on a flimsy pretext that their car was left of center. The officer claimed he smelled marijuana smoke, which gave him an excuse to search the car -- and he found her used-car purchase money, but no pot.
A local prosecutor who denounces President Obama and sends emails saying "Be proud to be white" gave the waitress a choice: She could forfeit her cash and drive away without charges -- or she could resist, and be jailed for "money laundering" and her children put into state foster care. It was extortion, pure and simple.
The waitress and her boyfriend eventually joined a class-action lawsuit against the town of Tenaha, along with other victims of "cash-for-freedom deals." But they gained little except a promise by local officials to impose better controls on police searches. The racist prosecutor refused to testify, invoking the Fifth Amendment on grounds that she might be incriminated by her own testimony.
The New Yorker account cites several other cases of innocent people who never were charged with crimes, but were stripped of money and belongings. It includes gays whose cars were seized in "bag a fag" operations, after undercover police claimed they observed sexual behavior.
Back in the 1990s, former Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., warned that "our civil asset-forfeiture laws are being used in terribly unjust ways." Congress eventually passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in an attempt to end abuses -- but they continued, and numerous states passed their own forfeiture laws.
The only lesson we can glean from this is: Never carry thousands in cash with you -- and beware of any minor traffic breach that could lead to a police search. Finally, if you are trapped in a "cash-for-freedom" choice, call a civil rights lawyer and try to fight back.