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Shadows of a Police State? Seizing Property Without Probable Cause

We have all heard of rebel without a cause, James Dean’s tour de force that some six decades ago spurred so many adolescents to go with the flow of their rebellious hormones. Dated as it might have been, the concept of anything taken without probable cause is enough to raise a few liberal (and not so liberal) eye-brows.

In most states, “civil asset forfeiture” laws allow the police to seize any property they suspect is connected with the commission of a crime. They do not have to either prove a crime has indeed been committed or even charge anyone with an offense. In addition, monies received from auctioned seized houses, boats and cars end up in police department coffers.

Police executives in one survey agreed that 40% of these forfeiture funds were “necessary as a budget supplement.” This obvious conflict of interests can only make taxpayers wonder if the police aren’t more focused on cases more likely to involve seizable assets than others.

An owner of seized property can challenge the action by arguing that he or she was unaware that the property was being used for criminal purposes. The burden of proof, however, is not on the police; it is on the owner to prove his or her innocence in 38 out of 50 states!

The confusion and misinterpretation lies with the difference between civil and criminal asset forfeiture laws. Criminal forfeiture refers to criminal activity. For example, a getaway car used in a bank robbery would be seized as well as any other tangible properties (houses, boats, etc) bought with ill-gotten gains. In the case of civil forfeiture, no conviction is required and the government files an action against the specific property. The results are cases with names like: State of Texas v One 2004 Chevrolet Silvevrado and United States v $10,500.

Among police and prosecutors there is rampant denial that the current forfeiture system is corrupt. There’s no question, however, that the numbers of total federal seizures are drastically up in the last decade, ranging from $400 million in 2001 to $1.3 billion in 2008. State data is less clear but still reflects an upward trend.

The police protect and serve honorably for the most part, but they are only human with mortgages and tuitions and electrical bills to pay just like everyone else. Such a financial incentive does not seem in the best interests of everyone and perhaps it would be a better idea to place the money seized from criminals in a general pot of public funds?

There is no way to sugar coat the fact that seizing a citizen’s assets without proof of guilt is unjust and undemocratic to say the very least.

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