As more Americans are becoming aware of the controversial and, frankly criminal program that has caused the ruin of small businesses and damaged the lives of thousands of innocent people, Civil asset forfeiture has, according to a recent Washington Post article “become one of the few public policy and social issues that united activists and lawmakers across the political spectrum, some of whom dubbed the system ‘policing for profit.’”
The program which includes monitoring bank deposits began more than 30 years ago as part of the war on drugs. The Post article reports that, “Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.” They are entitled to make these seizures “without proving that a crime occurred”, as stated by Attorney General Holder who finally, last Friday, barred local and state police from using federal law to make any further seizures without proving that a crime occurred.
Most people are unaware of the program unless they have been innocently or otherwise targeted. As the Post article makes clear, “Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most powerful — and unusual — law enforcement tools. Police do not need evidence of a crime to use it, because it is a civil action against an object, such as currency or a car, rather than a person.”
An example cited in the article is of Mandrel Stuart, who according to the Post “was stopped in 2012 by Fairfax County, Virginia, police, detained without charges, handcuffed and stripped of $17,550 in cash that was to be used for equipment and supplies for his barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Virginia. He eventually hired a lawyer, and a jury gave him his money back in 2013. But he lost his restaurant while fighting the government, because he had no working capital.”
With so many innocent people, many who have been people of color and immigrants being targeted as a result of this program, it is clearly time for change. The inspiration perhaps for John Yoder and Brad Cates, two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office under President Ronald Reagan, saying the program should end. According to the Post, they said “the program began with good intentions to fight the “profit motive” that fueled drug cartels and other criminals. Over time, however, the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.”
It is the only law that is the antithesis of our justice system. In civil asset forfeiture, the “victim” is considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent. And as the Post reports, “As a consequence, protections common in criminal law do not apply. In fact, owners who want to recover their cash or property must show it is theirs and demonstrate it is not tied to crime.”
This random act of illegal search and seizure, while started with good intentions, has turned the IRS, local and federal police into criminals all in the “name of justice.” There simply is no justification for stealing from innocent people. And while the end has come, it clearly has not come a moment too soon.