Did you know that, according to the Institute for Justice, 80 percent of people from whom the federal government seized property under civil forfeiture laws were never even charged with a crime? Eighty percent!
How can that be? How can the government just take your possessions? Here’s how. Civil forfeiture actions are what’s known as in rem proceedings. That’s latin for “against a thing.” In other words, the government pretends to try inanimate objects. That’s why we get cases like United States v. $35,651.11 in U.S. Currency or State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. They ostensibly try inanimate objects for their involvement in criminal activity. That means the person who owns the property doesn't necessarily have to be charged and, most times, isn’t.
In many cases, the law enforcement department seizing the property gets to keep it. The town of Richland, MS has just built themselves a brand new $4.1 million police station funded by civil forfeiture money. Cops sit out on I-20 and pull over suspected drug-runners. They take their cash and anything they take they get to keep.
That’s the perverted incentive of civil forfeiture. It’s known by opponents of civil forfeiture as “police for profit.” Policing for profit has exploded in the last few years. According to IJ, the top ten forfeiture money-earning agencies in Texas got more than a third of their budgets from civil forfeiture. A former NY City police commissioner pointed out that cops often set up roadblocks on the southbound lanes of I-95 which carry the cash to Miami to buy the drugs instead of actually catching the drugs on the northbound lanes. Cash can be seized and spent. Drugs have to be destroyed.
But the police aren’t the only ones, by far. One of the most egregious money-snatchers is the IRS. There are countless stories of the IRS stealing money out of bank accounts because they didn’t like the way the money was deposited. Any deposit over $10,000 has to be reported by the bank to the IRS. If you make several “structured” cash deposits under 10 grand the IRS might just take everything in your bank account. From 2005 to 2012, they seized more than $242 million in more than 2,500 cases.
Were some of those people engaged in criminal acts of evading taxes? Probably. How many is impossible to tell since many never go to court. The IRS just keeps the money. At least a third of the cases are nothing more than a series of cash transactions with apparently no other criminal activity even alleged. That’s scary. If the owners of the money ever do get that money back it likely will take at least a year and cost them untold dollars in legal fees.
No one should have their property taken from them without first being convicted of a crime involving that property. It’s really that simple. Civil forfeiture as we know it needs to end. What certainly needs to end is allowing the departments that seize your property to keep it. That’s just ripe for corruption.
It’s time to end civil forfeiture. Get rid of the profit incentive and require a criminal conviction before property can be taken. Make the bad guys the incentive, not the money.
Phil Valentine is the host of the award-winning, nationally syndicated talk radio show, The Phil Valentine Show.