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If you are not familiar with civil forfeiture, you might be shocked to learn that:

  • Police can legally confiscate anything you own, including your home, car, and hard earned cash
  • They can take your possessions without a trial, without charging you with a crime, and even if you have not committed a crime.
  • Once your property has been taken, you must prove you are innocent at your own expense in order to recover it.
  • As a reward for taking your property, law enforcement gets to keep it and use it to buy equipment and pay their own salaries.
  • To do this, the only requirement is that authorities can connect the property with a drug crime, no matter how small.

Christos and Markela Sourovelis recently learned this the hard way. They were forcefully evicted from their home by Philadelphia police and thrown out on the street over $40 worth of heroin.

The nightmare began when police showed up at the house and arrested their 22-year-old son, Yianni, on drug charges — $40 worth of heroin. Authorities say he was selling drugs out of the home. The Sourvelises say they had no knowledge of any involvement their son might have had with drugs.

A month-and-a-half later police came back — this time to seize their house, forcing the Sourvelises and their children out on the street that day. Authorities came with the electric company in tow to turn off the power and even began locking the doors with screws

This isn’t an isolated incident. In the past 10 years, Philadelphia officials have confiscated roughly 1,000 houses, 3,300 vehicles and nearly $44 million in cash. Even more alarming is the rate at which forfeitures are accelerating. Out of the 1000+ homes seized in the last decade, 500 of them – almost half – were seized in the past two years alone. And that’s just one city.  Nationally, asset forfeiture is a billion dollar industry.

How Cops to Become Robbers

When people first find out that cops are taking families homes, many wonder “Why would law enforcement want to steal someone’s home?” The answer is simple: greed. Law enforcement makes a lot of money taking our stuff. If you look at the incentives where the Sourovelises live, you see that:

Pennsylvania law lets law enforcement keep 100% of all forfeiture proceeds. Twenty percent of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office general budget comes from the forfeiture kitty, and over the past decade some $25 million has been used to pay the DA’s office salaries.

These officials are literally paying their own salaries by taking other people’s houses. However, they are not alone in the venture. The federal government plays a key role in facilitating forfeitures through a program called Equitable Sharing. Basically, this allows the federal government to act as a clearinghouse for seized property. Local cops take it and give it to the feds, then the feds divvy it up and give the local cops their share. Slate described the process like this:

The proceeds from federal forfeitures are deposited into the DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Fund. After the DOJ determines the size of the cut for the feds, equitable sharing allows the local police to take up to 80 percent of what the property is worth. In fiscal year 2012, the federal government paid out almost $700 million in equitable sharing proceeds to local and state law enforcement agencies. 

There is also a thriving education industry that has built up around forfeiture. Private educational firms teach highway interdiction techniques to officers that help them increase the number and amount of their forfeitures. It is so pervasive, that officers have started joining private networks dedicated to forfeiture and even compete with each other for bragging rights. In an article about one of these networks, the Washington post recently said:

A thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing “trophy shots” of money and drugs.

This begs the question… If all your friends are doing it, if the feds are encouraging it, if you get special training for participating in it, if you get to keep what you take, and especially, if it’s all legal… what law abiding cop wouldn’t want to start taking stuff?

Criminal Civil Forfeiture

Forfeiture laws are a perfect example of unintended consequences. In this case, the consequences are the direct result of legislation designed to help wage the failed war on drugs.

Though civil-asset forfeiture has a long history, it took off in America following passage of some amendments to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act in 1984 that allowed police to keep and spend forfeiture proceeds. This gave law-enforcement agencies a direct financial incentive to take more stuff, and led to what the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian law firm, calls “policing for profit“.

There are a number of types of forfeiture. Criminal forfeiture occurs when property is taken from a criminal as a result of a conviction of a crime. With criminal forfeiture, you are granted your basic 14th Amendment rights, specifically the rights granted by this section:

Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law

Civil forfeiture is another matter entirely. There is no due process. There is no conviction. There does not even need to be a charge.

Incredibly, property owners battling civil forfeiture have fewer rights than those actually accused of committing a crime. Unlike in criminal cases, the government does not need to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” to prevail. Instead, once prosecutors show merely that there was a link between a property and some alleged criminal activity owners must prove their innocence. Moreover, since these cases are in civil court, owners facing forfeiture do not have a right to an attorney.

That means that under civil forfeiture, you are guilty until proven innocent. And if you are too poor to afford a lawyer, then you are too poor to afford justice.

Fighting Back

Forfeiture laws are among the most corrupt and insidious on the books, and the abuses that they have enabled are outrageous. However, some people are starting to fight back. Recently, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Philadelphia District Attorney on behalf of people who have had property seized.

The lawsuit asks the court, among other things, to declare the Philly D.A.’s forfeiture operation unconstitutional, declare the plaintiffs to be liable for the unconstitutionality of the program, and impose orders shutting down all forfeiture activity, and requiring that seized property be returned.

Although the suit only seeks damages in the amount of $1 per plaintiff, the real goal is to end Philly’s forfeiture operation and set a precedent that can be used to shut down forfeiture operations nation wide.

That day can’t come soon enough.

 

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