04/10/2017

How To Stop The Feds From Robbing The Innocent

Jacob Sullum, New York Post

During a meeting with county sheriffs in February, President Trump was puzzled by criticism of civil-asset forfeiture, which all the cops in the room viewed as an indispensable and unobjectionable law-enforcement tool. “Do you even understand the other side of it?” the president asked. “No,” one sheriff said, and that was that.

Trump might get a more helpful answer if he asked Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who last week reintroduced a bill aimed at curtailing civil-forfeiture abuses. As he observed, “These abuses threaten citizens’ constitutional rights, put unnecessary burdens on innocent Americans, and weaken our faith in law enforcement.”

Civil forfeiture lets the government confiscate property allegedly linked to crime without bringing charges against the owner. Since law-enforcement agencies receive most or all of the proceeds from the forfeitures they initiate, they have a strong financial incentive to loot first and ask questions never, which explains why those sheriffs were not eager to enlighten the president about the downside of such legalized theft.

A new report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General highlights the potential for abuse. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, the OIG found that the Drug Enforcement Administration took $4.2 billion in cash, more than 80 percent of it through administrative forfeitures, meaning there was no judicial oversight because the owners did not challenge the seizures in court.

Although the DEA would argue that the lack of challenges proves the owners were guilty, that is not true. The process for recovering seized property is daunting, complicated, time-consuming and expensive, often costing more than the property is worth.

Consider Charles Clarke, a college student who, in 2014, lost $11,000 in savings to cops at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport who said his suitcase smelled of marijuana. No contraband was found, and as is typical in such cases, the allegations in the federal seizure affidavit were absurdly vague, merely asserting that the money had something to do with illegal drugs.

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