Police can seize property of the innocent

In the United States, you are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty.  But under the civil asset forfeiture laws, the police can take and sell your computer, your car, your house and your cash even if you haven’t been convicted, or even charged, with a crime.

All they have to do is to say that they have a reasonable suspicion that the property itself was used in a crime.

Police have a strong economic incentive to do this because they get to keep property they seized, sell it and apply the money to their budgets.   Not all police departments abuse their power in this way.   I never heard any such story about the Rochester Police Department.  But many do.

The U.S. Department of Justice adds $1 billion a year to its asset forfeiture fund, according to the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties advocate.  Nobody knows the figure for state and local police, but it’s probably more.

The New Yorker ran a good article about this, The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture, by Sarah Stillman, which I read on-line.  Stillman’s report reminds me of reports I used to read about police abuses in poor countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where police would shake down travelers and confiscate their property.  Sometimes it seems to me that the United States, like the old Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, is becoming a Third World nation in everything except military power.

Asset forfeiture was intended to be used as a tool of law enforcement against drug traffickers.  But now it is used against ordinary citizens, including anybody from out-of-state who happens to be driving through certain small towns in Texas.

Liberty is indivisible.  There is no way to give arbitrary power to the police or anybody else, and be sure that it will be used only against people you don’t like.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “no person shall … be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”   I hope the American Civil Liberties Union, Institute for Justice or some other civil liberties group challenges the constitutionality of civil asset forfeiture.

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