Saturday, August 25, 2007

Forfeiture rewards cops' criminality

By Libby

The war on some drugs has spawned a host of bad law that laid the foundation for the abridgements of civil rights we see today in the war on terror but of all them, the forfeiture law is the worst because it encourages law enforcement laxity the most. The police don't need to prove a crime to seize your property under this law. They merely have to suspect that it is related to drug activity and it is then up to the property to prove its innocence. Thus we have such absurd cases in our courts such as $5,000 v. US, or 1994 Ford Truck v. Comm. of MA.

This week a trucker fights back against this legalized robbery, having filed suit to get back "$24,000 seized by DEA agents earlier this month at a weigh station on U.S. 54 in New Mexico north of El Paso, Texas."

The trucker gave permission to search his vehicle and told the state police he had $23,700 in cash there. The search turned up absolutely no evidence of illegal drugs or paraphenalia but nonetheless they turned the cash over to the DEA. Despite there having been no charges filed against the trucker, the DEA is keeping the cash.
DEA agents told Prieto he would receive a notice of federal proceedings to permanently forfeit the money within 30 days and that to get it back, he'd have to prove it was his and did not come from illegal drug sales.

They told him the process probably would take a year, the ACLU said.

Why would the police rush to assume the money was drug related and seize it? Because if Prieto hadn't fought to get it back, they would get to keep it. This happens on a smaller scale every single day in America. Cars are seized on the basis of tiny amounts of marijuana found on the passengers. Modest homes and land are seized on the basis of a couple of pounds of pot and low level dealing among a circle of friends, even though the "big dealers" have regular jobs that pay their bills.

Prieto is fortunate that the ACLU took his case because he's likely to recover the bulk of his money but customarily, most people don't bother to try to recover their property under this legalized robbery scheme because the legal fees involved in doing so are often larger than the worth of the goods. Thus do our police departments from the local yokels right up to the feds enjoy a windfall that requires no police work, nor tiresome budget requests.

To add insult to injury, this money cannot be used to pay officers to fight crime, it can only be used for equipment and building projects and such. This is why every podunk PD in small town America now has SWAT teams and military style equipment that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. Which, of course, has contributed to the rise of no-knock raids in small busts that in the past would have been handled by a couple of uniformed officers in an non-confrontational manner.

Of all the failed policies of the drug war, none does us more harm than forfeiture. It's well past time to either abolish the law, or in the alternate, to designate the proceeds from seized property go to some other agency than the one that does the seizing. Schools or addiction treatment facilities would be a good choice. I promise you the temptation to make the easy bust would greatly diminish when this financial incentive is removed.

No comments: