By Sasha Agapiev
In recent times, it has began to seem as if law officials in modern-day America have been enjoying a wide array of benefits and freedom which has allowed them to act in a fashion which many consider to be nefarious and detrimental to the citizens of the nation. It seems as if a news report covering a case of unjustified police brutality emerges every week, and the topic has become so common with journalists that the New York Times has a section on its website dedicated solely to articles concerning injudicious acts committed by law officials. Some experts, including Cedric Alexander, the DeKalb County, Georgia, deputy COO of public safety and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (2), argue that police brutality has not, in fact, become more prevalent over the years, but the public believes so due to the virality of cell-phone videos released by eye-witnesses and similar videos that are covering media pages. However, there is still one controversial law which, in the past few years, has made it increasingly difficult for law enforcement officials to ameliorate the way American citizens perceive them.
On April 25th of the year 2000 (1), a bill titled Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act was enacted. Despite its mundane name, Civil Forfeiture is actually an extremely intriguing and provocative operation which has caught the attention of citizens from around the nation. Upon passing, the bill has allowed police officers and other law officials to seize currency or other assets from civilians without having to accuse them of having committed a crime. In essence, this is a procedure which gives Police the right to seize large sums of money from citizens who, in the majority of cases, are completely innocent and blameless. It is no wonder why civil forfeiture has been described as “…legalized robbery by Law Enforcement” by Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. Naturally, the practice has been controversial for the entirety of its existence, but has recently become the victim of worldwide scrutiny after after an episode of Last Week Tonight aired to several million viewers and went viral after being posted online.
As if matters weren’t already bad enough, according to John Oliver, the majority of assets seized by police officers are kept by the police department in which they reside. What this entails is that a highway patrol sergeant could pull over a vehicle, proceed to interrogate the driver with questions regarding currency in his possession, conclude by taking all of the driver’s money and handing it over to his police station and justify all of these actions by claiming that “there was significant reason to believe that the money could have been used to commit crimes in the future.” In many situations, innocent, law-abiding citizens can have their entire lives ruined by such incidents. According to an article in the New Yorker (3), a couple with two young sons were on a road trip towards Linden, Texas, when they were abruptly pulled over by a local sheriff. After talking to them for a short while, the officer asked the parents if there were any drugs being transported in the vehicle, to which the two answered “no.” The officer was not convinced by this answer, so he and his partner concluded that they would search the car. Although their search was fruitless, the two sheriffs took the couple and their children to the local police station, where they were told that their money would have to be confiscated and handed over to the station because the couple “fit the profile of drug couriers,” and that children were purposefully placed in the car to act as “decoys.” The only way the couple could have gotten their money back would have been to go to trial, which would have costed them an additional, considerable amount of money and time, which the two did not have.
On top of this mountain of secretive, seemingly nefarious police activity lies one last component which makes the entire rest of the matter appear to be even more unseemly. According to several different sources, including an article on Business Insider (5) and one on the Washington Post (6), police agencies are free to use the majority of the money they seize during civil forfeiture raids. Although they are supposed to use this money wisely to purchase necessary items which can not be acquired within budget provided, insufficient amounts of regulations have lead to very many questionable purchases made with seized assets. For example, cops serving in Amarillo, Texas, police force used $637 to obtain a coffee machine for their department offices. In another case, a police department spent an astonishing $5300 to purchase challenge coin medallions for those working there. There have been other instances where more reasonable and justifiable purchases were made, such as the acquisition of a $227,000 armored personnel carrier.
Now, every story has two sides, and although I may have made civil forfeiture seem like a completely unnecessary and awful practice which only serves to harm, but it turns out that asset forfeiture was put into place with many good intentions in mind. Additionally, those who are in favor of keeping the bill have used powerful arguments to support their claims. To provide you with an insight into the rationale that pro Civil Forfeiture members possess, here are a few of the many arguments they give that show the positive aspects of legalized asset forfeiture. Stefan D. Cassella, a proclaimed asset forfeiture and money laundering expert (7), states that Civil Forfeiture makes it easier for government and police officials to seize unlawful items from criminals, claiming “With forfeiture laws, we can separate the criminal from his profits.” This is a reasonable argument, as it is true that criminals should not be allowed to keep possession of items that they have used to commit heinous acts. Mr. Cassella continues by declaring that “forfeiture undeniably provides both a deterrent against crime and as a measure of punishment for the criminal.” He justifies this claim by advocating that “Many criminals fear the loss of their vacation homes, fancy cars, businesses and bloated bank accounts far more than the prospect of a jail sentence.” In most cases, this is in fact true. A large majority of criminals perform illegal acts to obtain large sums of money easily, which they then use to purchase expensive items. If criminals knew that there was a large chance that their goods would be taken from them, they would likely be discouraged from committing crimes in the future.
Another instance showcasing the thought process of a civilian who is strongly in favor of keeping civil forfeiture laws is on a page on the popcenter.com (an abbreiviation of ‘problem-oriented policing’) website(8). The author, whose name is not stated on the website, has arguments similar to those of Mr. Stefan Cassella. He/She begins by stating that asset forfeiture plays a major role in crime reduction by deterring criminals who plan on breaking the law sometime in their lives. According to the writer, asset forfeiture is advantageous “ Because incarceration (or the threat of such) does not deter all offenders. Forfeiture is intended to pick up where traditional punishments leave off.” The creator of the article progresses by claiming that the legalization of civil forfeiture has led to an increase in drug-related arrests, which is beneficial to everybody because an increase in drug-arrests should result in a decrease in drug-related crimes. To conclude his/her argument, the author declares that a third, often overlooked advantage of asset forfeiture is its positive impact on the budgets of police officers. The author phrases this by saying that “The obvious advantage of asset forfeiture is its potential to boost an agency’s bottom line.” It is true that in many cases, law officials and police officers are denied access to valuable equipment due to a lack of funds, and money obtained through asset forfeiture can be extremely helpful in solving this problem.
After witnessing both the benefits and consequences of keeping civil forfeiture laws in America, it becomes clear why an abundance of people are in favor of the practice and why so many others are vehemently opposed to it. From my 15 year old perspective, it appears that the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act was created and enacted in the hope of rendering the lives of all American citizens safer, with the dream of creating more sophisticated law enforcement tactics which involve stopping crimes before they happen rather than waiting until it is too late. Nearly 16 years after the bill was written, the goal of civil forfeiture is very much still relevant, and the practice has an opportunity to become one which can truly benefit our nation. However, the entire meaning of civil forfeiture is being destroyed by two major issues: An overabundance of power accompanied by an insufficient amount of supervision. If we are going to give police officers around the country the ability to take money from potentially innocent people before accusing them of having committed a crime, then we must have strict regulations being enforced by directors who oversee the actions taken by these officers. An example of this would be having someone in charge of verifying all of the purchases made by police officers who are using money that was seized during an asset forfeiture case. This would prevent officers from buying ridiculous and unnecessary items using the life-savings of a potentially innocent citizen. Another example of what could be done would be have a specially trained agent in every police department whose job is to approve every single asset forfeiture case committed by an officer working in his department. This would help ensure that every time money was being seized from someone, there would have to be a good reason to do so.
In the majority of instances, people who are suddenly provided with large amounts of power and control start to make problems out of nothing just so that they can enforce their strength, which eventually leads to them causing trouble for innocent citizens. This is why civil forfeiture has become such a controversial practice, because police officers put in these kinds of situations without proper oversight are bound to make mistakes which could end up devastating the lives of those caught on the wrong end of things. As the wise man Abraham Maslow once said: “When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
1.“H.R. 1658 (106th): Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000.”Www.govtrack.us. Civic Impulse, LLC, 2004. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/106/hr1658>.
2.McLaughlin, Eliott. “We’re Not Seeing More Police Shootings, Just More News Coverage.” Www.cnn.com. Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 21 Apr. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/20/us/police-brutality-video-social-media-attitudes/>.
3.Stillman, Sarah. “Taken – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/08/12/taken>.
4.Campbell, Chris. “The American Nightmare That Is Civil Asset Forfeiture.” Laissez Faire The American Nightmare That Is Civil Asset Forfeiture Comments. 20 June 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://lfb.org/the-american-nightmare-that-is-civil-asset-forfeiture/>.
5.Fuchs, Erin. “Here Are The Ridiculous Things Cops Bought With Cash ‘Seized’ From Americans.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-what-police-bought-with-civil-forfeiture-2014-10>.
6.O’Harrow Robert O’Harrow Jr., S, Robert. “Asset Seizures Fuel Police Spending.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/10/11/asset-seizures-fuel-police-spending/>.
7.Cassella, Stefan. “Forfeiture Is Reasonable, and It Works.” : Publications : The Federalist Society. The Federalist Society, 1 May 1997. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.fed-soc.org/publications/detail/forfeiture-is-reasonable-and-it-works>.
8.“Benefits of Forfeiture.” Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.popcenter.org/responses/asset_forfeiture/5>.
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