Imagine if a police officer anywhere in the United States conducted a routine traffic stop on you. While the officer decides to let you off with a warning (which does happen sometimes), he makes the decision to seize a large amount of cash you were carrying to the bank for deposit because he determines you were going to use it in a crime, even though he has no direct evidence to back up his claim.
Although this was a fictional scenario, the police officer exercised a very real legal tactic known as civil asset forfeiture. These laws, according to Forbes, allow police and prosecutors to seize and keep someone's property without charging the person with a crime.
John Yoder and Brad Cates, who were both heads of the Asset Forfeiture Office at the Department of Justice from 1983 to 1989, came up with the idea of asset forfeiture as a way to combat drug cartels, money laundering and other criminal enterprises. Now, in a Washington Post op-ed published on Sept. 18, they have harshly criticized its practice and called for its total abolishment.
"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," Yoder and Cates wrote.
While Yoder and Cates noted in their op-ed that reforms were passed in 2000 to curtail its practice, they argued that it was impossible to reform "because civil forfeiture is fundamentally at odds with our judicial system and notions of fairness."
According to Forbes, it does not take much for police to seize cash after pulling drivers over for minor traffic infractions. To detect suspicious activity, police would use "indicators" such as tinted windows, trash in the car, air fresheners, the presence of energy drinks, "a driver who is too talkative or too quiet," or even signs of nervousness.
"Cars obeying the speed limit were suspect," a Florida sheriff said. "Their desire to avoid being stopped made them stand out."
Unlike the typical American law concept of "innocent until proven guilty," the legal burden is on the property owner to prove that the assets seized by police are not part of a crime. Many victims of the practice of civil forfeiture decide not to pursue court cases against the police to return the property in question, given the excessive cost and time needed to pursue those cases and low probability of winning against the government.
Although others have covered this controversial practice before, it has now grabbed widespread public attention thanks to British comedian John Oliver, who had stinging criticism of the practice of civil asset forfeiture by American law enforcement on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight." Oliver played a clip, which originally aired on Oct. 5, where a police chief described the practice to a civilian review board in Missouri; according to Quartz, police departments in some states like Tennessee can keep up to 100 percent of the seized property.
"It's kinda like pennies from heaven," the Missouri police chief said in the clip. "It gets you a toy or something that you need. That's the way we look at it."
According to Oliver, those "toys" included a police department in Massachusetts using seized cash to buy a Zamboni, while a Texas district attorney's office used such assets to purchase alcoholic drinks for office parties.
Quartz noted that police have seized $2.5 billion in cash without search warrants or indictments since 2001. Thanks to the federal civil forfeiture program as described by Forbes, local and state law enforcement can pocket up to 80 percent of the proceeds, which meant that those authorities kept $1.7 billion for their own use.
Norm Stamper, former Seattle Chief of Police, noted that police departments across the United States have become "addicted" to civil forfeiture. He argued that police are supposed to protect the public instead of profiteering from them.
"The police belong to the people," Stamper said. "Not the other way around."